Historians Rank Every President
Reputations are a tricky thing. The reputations of some U.S. presidents grow stronger or change with time, especially when considered through a historical lens.
We have ranked 43 of the 44 presidents, using C-SPAN’s 2017 presidential historian survey as a guide. In the survey, 91 historians and professional observers scored each president in 10 categories of presidential leadership, including administrative skills, economic management, and international relations. Missing from this piece is President Donald J. Trump, who has been in office only a few months when the survey was completed.
No. 1 is Abraham Lincoln, even though he had many detractors during his presidency. So-called Honest Abe was a wartime president who pushed through Congress the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery. He was assassinated by a pro-slavery advocate. His vice president, Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln, is ranked near the bottom of the list, largely because of his lenient administration of Southern Reconstruction, which left the pre-Civil War white power structure intact. President James Buchanan rates even lower than Johnson. Under Buchanan, eight Southern states seceded from the Union, an event heralding the Civil War.
Of the 10 categories used to rate a president, pursuit of equal justice for all was generally a glaring weakness. Of the 43 presidents on this list, 22 received their lowest marks in pursuit of justice for all. These presidents include founding fathers George Washington and James Madison. Perhaps not surprising to political observers of today, relatively few presidents have had a strong alliance with Capitol Hill. Warren Harding is the only president to receive his highest marks for his relationship with congress.
U.S. presidents also vary in background and tenure. Starting with George Washington, many were Virginians, plantation owners, and slave owners. Then came John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams, both from Massachusetts, who represented a different world view, including anti-slavery. Many presidents were from Ohio; a smattering came from the South and New York; and two, Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan, hailed from California.
Two presidents — Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton — were impeached, and both were acquitted. Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected four times and served the longest, while William Henry Harrison, the president with the shortest term, died after a month in office. All were married, save James Buchanan.
The following list is based on C-SPAN’s 2017 presidential historians survey. Presidents are ranked by historians and other professional observers of the presidency based on 10 qualities of leadership, with 100 being the best and 0 the worst. Survey rankings were arranged by averaging all responses in each of the 10 categories for each of the 43 presidents. Information about the presidents’ time in the White House was taken from government sources such as WhiteHouse.gov or history-based sites such as History.com. Presidents are listed in order of best to worst.