Presidential rankings: William Henry Harrison was robbed!

Update: Read the comments under my Daily Kos cross-post for lots of good insights. There are also some fascinating comments in Beltway Dem’s thread; for instance, Charles Lemos makes a case for Arthur as one of the great presidents.

Thanks to Beltway Dem’s diary at MyDD, I saw that C-SPAN asked these 65 professional historians or observers of the presidency to rank the 42 presidents on the following criteria:  

   * Public Persuasion

   * Crisis Leadership

   * Economic Management

   * Moral Authority

   * International Relations

   * Administrative Skills

   * Relations with Congress

   * Vision/Setting An Agenda

   * Pursued Equal Justice For All

   * Performance Within Context of Times

Here are the overall scores and rankings. George W. Bush ranked 36th, ahead of Millard Fillmore, Warren G. Harding, William Henry Harrison, Franklin D. Pierce, Andrew Johnson, and James Buchanan. Doesn’t that strike you as unfair to William Henry Harrison? Granted, he didn’t accomplish much in the six weeks he was president before dying of pneumonia. But it’s not as if he turned a record surplus into record deficits or got this country mired in the longest war in U.S. history or anything.

Other notable findings:

Abraham Lincoln ranked first again, as any normal person would expect (even though none of the men who sought to lead the Republican Party named him as the greatest GOP president). Lincoln is even more remarkable when you view his leadership in the context of his times. The three presidents who immediately preceded Lincoln and his successor all ranked in the bottom six overall.

George Washington moved ahead of Franklin Delano Roosevelt this time to finish second. That is a tough call, and I could see it either way. The New Deal changed this country forever, but Washington’s commitment to regular presidential elections and serving only two terms set enormously important precedents.

Theodore Roosevelt and Harry S Truman ranked fourth and fifth, respectively, as they did in the 2000 survey. I’m no professional historian, but that seems high for Truman.

John F. Kennedy moved from eighth place in 2000 to sixth in this survey, putting him just ahead of Thomas Jefferson. They cannot be serious. Kennedy did more for this country as president than Jefferson did?

Dwight D. Eisenhower also moved up from ninth place in the last survey to eighth. Woodrow Wilson dropped from sixth in 2000 to ninth, which probably says something about current academic trends in the International Relations field, but I don’t know what exactly.

Republicans will be pleased that Ronald Reagan and Lyndon Johnson switched places; Reagan moved from eleventh into the top ten, while LBJ dropped down one notch to eleventh.

I have problems with putting JFK ahead of LBJ. I don’t think Kennedy could have gotten such far-reaching civil rights legislation through Congress during that era. The great tragedy of LBJ’s presidency was continuing the Vietnam policy begun by JFK. Johnson had serious doubts about this policy, but he stuck with it, and in doing so he was following the advice of almost all the Kennedy advisers who stayed on for his administration. I do not believe Kennedy would have kept us from deeper involvement in Vietnam, and I don’t think he would have achieved nearly as much on the domestic front.

Speaking of which, ranking Reagan ahead of Johnson seems outlandish. I know Reagan is now a conservative cult hero (they whitewash his tax hikes during in his second term), but can his admirers explain to me which of his policies changed this country forever? Did he make the government smaller in some way? Did he manage the country’s money responsibly?

Look at this list of LBJ’s accomplishments, which Paul Rosenberg compiled at Open Left. (I hope he will forgive me for posting the list after the jump as well.) Can anyone imagine this country without Medicare or Medicaid? Head Start or Food Stamps? The Department of Transportation? Republicans may hate the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, but they have been unable to get rid of them. The long list includes consumer protection and environmental progress as well.

The war in Vietnam was a terrible mistake, but even so, Johnson made lasting changes for the good in so many policy areas, it’s mind-boggling. The Republican presidents who followed him were unable to undo this legacy.

Getting back to the historians’ survey, Bill Clinton looks a lot better now than he did before George W. Bush screwed up the country. As a group, the historians ranked him 21st in 2000, but he has moved up to 15th place.

George H.W. Bush moved up slightly from 20th to 18th place.

Did someone’s book launch a revisionist view of Ulysses S. Grant during the last eight years? He ranked 33rd in 2000 but moved up to 23rd place. No other president showed as large a jump in the historians’ rankings. UPDATE: In the Daily Kos thread Judge Moonbox says:

Such a revision is almost certainly due to Eric Foner’s Reconstruction; which wiped away nearly a century of the racist received history–a legacy which proves that history is not always written by the victors. Here it had been written by the Mugwumps.

Also, ORDem linked to this diary by NNadir on how Grant wasn’t a bad president.

Jimmy Carter dropped from 22nd to 25th, and Richard Nixon dropped from 25th to 27th.

This is an open thread for any opinions about how the U.S. presidents should be ranked.

list of LBJ’s domestic policy accomplishments:

Civil rights

 * Civil Rights Act of 1964

 * Voting Rights Act of 1965

 * Immigration and Nationality Services Act of 1965

 * Civil Rights Act of 1968

War on Poverty

 * Food Stamp Act of 1964

 * Upward Bound

 * Head Start

 * Model Cities Program

 * Economic Opportunity Act of 1964-and the programs it spawned, including:

    > Jobs Corp

    > Community Action Program

    > VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America)

    > Community Legal Services


 * Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965

 * Higher Education Act of 1965

 * Bilingual Education Act of 1968


 * Medicare

 * Medicaid

Arts and Culture

 * National Endowment for the Arts

 * National Endowment for the Humanities

 * Public Broadcasting Act of 1967:

 * Chartered the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which in turn created:

    > PBS

    > NPR

 * John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts


 * Created Department of Transportation.

 * Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964

 * National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966

 * Highway Safety Act of 1966

Consumer protection

 * Cigarette Labeling Act of 1965

 * Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966

 * Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1966

 * Child Safety Act of 1966

 * Flammable Fabrics Act of 1967

 * Wholesome Meat Act of 1967

 * Truth-in-Lending Act of 1968

 * Wholesome Poultry Products Act of 1968

 * Land Sales Disclosure Act of 1968

 * Radiation Safety Act of 1968


 * Wilderness Act of 1964,

 * Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966,

 * National Trails System Act of 1968,

 * Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968,

 * Land and Water Conservation Act of 1965,

 * Solid Waste Disposal Act of 1965,

 * Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act of 1965,

 * National Historic Preservation Act of 1966,

 * Aircraft Noise Abatement Act of 1968,

 * National Environmental Policy Act of 1969.

About the Author(s)


  • Reagan did leave a legacy

    but not a hugely lasting one, beacuse it is based off of a failed ideology. However judicially and economically he clearly shifted the country right-ward for the next 25 or so years.

    Also, I think Washington gets a little too much credit. If you look at total contributions to our country clearly he would be number one, however the challenges he faced as the first president don’t come anywhere near to what FDR faced. Similarly I think Jimmy Carter has made great contributions to our nation but he was not a particularly successful president.

    Anyways, here would be my top 10.

    Abraham Lincoln  

    Franklin D. Roosevelt

    George Washington

    Theodore Roosevelt

    Lyndon Johnson

    John F. Kennedy

    Harry S. Truman

    Thomas Jefferson

    Dwight D. Eisenhower

    Woodrow Wilson

    In addition I think Daddy Bush and WJC are rated too low.  

    • I think Washington faced huge challenges

      After the failed Articles of Confederation, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that this country would hold together.

      Washington’s most important legacies were the principle of presidential elections, the idea of retiring rather than being president for life, and (as Mr. desmoinesdem says) the civilianization of politics in this country. Taking power as a general, he could easily have made the military more of a political player.

      You are right, though, there are good arguments for putting FDR in second place. I think he overreached too much (packing the court), whereas Washington didn’t grab as much power as he could have.  

  • WHH

    How does one even RANK William Henry Harrison? (Hey, they’re making his dollar coings right now!) I mean, was he better at laying around dying than Garfield was?

    I’ve always thought Wilson was terribly over-ranked in these things. The Red Scare Era domestic spying and repression of dissent was in some ways worse than Bush; even the Alberto Gonzales Justice (sic) Department didn’t have elected memberd of Congress arrested the way Mitchell Palmer went after Victor Berger. And it was Harding who finally pardoned Eugene Debs.

    There was also Wilson’s serious irresponsibility in staying in office when he was not fit physically, and probably not fit mentally, to serve.

    Also, Hoover gets a lot of the blame that Coolidge deserves. Hoover did a lot of great things in his life and only ever failed at one job…

    • Mr. desmoinesdem agrees with you

      William Henry Harrison should not be ranked, because he didn’t have time to do anything.

      However, in the Daily Kos thread AdmiralNaismith had an interesting rationale for ranking him:…

      William Harrison, it seems to me, ought to be the zero-point separating the net positive Presidents from the net negative Presidents. There’s no question that Harding, Hoover, Nixon, Grant and Chimpy all belong below Harrison by that standard. And more time may need to pass before we can really assess Chimpy’s place in history, but it’s hard to see how he gets a higher ranking than ANY of the others, except for Andrew Johnson and Buchanan.

      True, Coolidge was probably more responsible than Hoover for many of the things Hoover gets blamed for.

  • Speaking of robbed

    Where do you think Eugene V. Debs would have ranked?

    I’m thinking he would have knocked Lincoln right out of that number one slot with a bullet (no pun intended).

    Here is some fun info from the Marxist Internet Archive:…

    Also, my lovely wife and I spent a weekend at the Voluntown Peace Farm one summer not long ago. She spent an entire evening purusing the Eugene V. Debs memorial Presidential Candidate library which resides there.