My Litmus Test for Presidential Rankings

Whenever I come across a ranking of the U.S. presidents, I run it through my initial litmus test:

(a) Are John Tyler and Warren Harding in the top 10? They were the two best presidents in history, but they are usually judged by the establishment to be among the worst, if not the very worst.

(b) Are Woodrow Wilson and George W. Bush in the bottom 10? They were the most abysmal presidents to date, and yet the official C-Span historian survey puts Wilson all the way up at #11, and does not put Bush in the bottom 10.

I have found this to be a very reliable gauge, and it condemns the vast majority of presidential rankings out of hand. Those that do pass aren’t beyond criticism but at least get their priorities straight. They don’t overreact to sex scandals and graft scandals; they don’t elevate charisma over policies; they actually care about the Constitution and what it stands for. Here are three in particular:

recarving_2nd_1800x27001. Ivan Eland’s Recarving Rushmore passes the test. He has Tyler at #1, Harding at #6, the Younger Bush at #37, and Wilson the very worst at #41. To be sure, there is much I disagree with in Eland’s rankings. For example, he includes Grover Cleveland and Martin Van Buren in his Mount Rushmore (in the top 4), whereas I judge Cleveland and Van Buren to be very poor presidents. Conversely, he puts Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy at rock-bottom, where I think they belong in the top half. Nonetheless, Recarving Rushmore is an important contribution. It grades the presidents on their actual policies for a change — specifically, what they did for the causes of peace, prosperity, and liberty.

2. This blogger also passes my first swipe. He has Harding at #10 and Tyler at #11 (close enough), and Wilson as the very worst president. (He didn’t rate Bush, believing that at least two presidents need to pass through the White House to give an accurate ranking of any recent president.) I disagree with some of his rankings (the Senior Bush is way too high), but on whole it is a well thought out list, and far better than what mainstream historians have to offer.

3. Robert Spencer’s new book, Rating America’s Presidents, is another that passes at first glance (it will be published in August). In his blog preview, he lists Tyler and Harding in the top ten, Wilson and the Younger Bush in the bottom ten. Once again I have points of dispute, the most notable ones being Andrew Jackson and Donald Trump in the top 10, and Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton in the bottom 10. But even when I disagree with Spencer I respect his reasoning. Like the above two graders, he focuses on policies, not personalities or management styles — what the presidents did for the betterment of the American people. I’m looking forward to this book.

The problems with mainstream rankings

The establishment favors presidents who were charismatics, goal-oriented “managers”, foreign interventionists, and/or fiscally irresponsible globalists. I’ve been astonished by this. Ever since FDR especially, presidents have been evaluated primarily on the basis of their oratory skills, and their effectiveness in achieving ambitious goals — never mind whether those goals were good or bad. Take for example this statement from Stephen Ambrose in his book on Eisenhower:

“To say that Eisenhower was right about this or wrong about that is to do little more than announce one’s own political position. A more fruitful approach is to examine his years in the White House in his own terms, to make an assessment on the basis of how well he did in achieving the tasks and goals he set for himself at the time he took office.” (Eisenhower: Soldier and President, p 541)

This statement is absurd, but it could easily pass for boilerplate wisdom in the halls of the establishment. It’s absurd because you have to “announce your politics” when assessing political figures. You have to get your hands dirty. Otherwise your task has no meaning.

Here’s another one from Kenneth Davis’s rankings. In his analysis of James Polk, he gives him a perfect A, his lead reason being that Polk “stated what he was going to do and accomplished his goals”. (Don’t Know Much About the American Presidents, p 202). On that logic, any national leader can be great for simply doing what he sets out to do, no matter how dire his policies (not least Hitler and Stalin).

I see this stupid reasoning time and time again, and it finally led me to rank all of the presidents myself. Seriously, if no one else will do it right… I’m not interested in high-school class presidents who gave moving speeches or won popularity contests. Nor am I won over by global interventionists, spendthrifts, or those who curtailed freedom in the name of upholding it. I am impressed, rather, by chief executives who did what they swore to do in upholding the Constitution, and advanced the causes of peace, prosperity, and liberty. For that reason, it is often (though not always) the presidents who are commonly judged worst who are in fact the best, and vice versa.

7 thoughts on “My Litmus Test for Presidential Rankings

  1. I am really enjoying your President series, Loren. My only question is how do you determine the point values you deduct? It’s easy to understand a perfect score, but how do you determine 2 points from prosperity vs peace for example?

  2. I don’t have a hard-and-fast rule, if that’s what you’re looking for. I try weighing my point deductions in proportion to the consequences. Policies that are especially bad in the short-term, or have significant impact over a long term, will get a president docked more than minor offenses. And sometimes it’s not a matter of subtraction but division, for example when a president’s positive accomplishments are about evenly offset by his negatives (like Thomas Jefferson’s prosperity rating, or Abraham Lincoln’s liberty rating), in which case they get half the points (10/20) or close to it.

    Another question I often get is, Does involvement in war automatically bring down a president’s peace rating? And the answer is no, though it usually does, since most wars are unnecessary and avoidable. Staying out of unnecessary wars contributes positively to a president’s peace score, but avoiding conflict that should not be avoided lowers the president’s peace score. So for example, Harry Truman’s dropping the bomb on Japan, and Thomas Jefferson’s war on the Barbary Pirates, contribute positively to their peace scores, because things would have been worse if they had not taken those actions (and the cause of peace would have ultimately suffered). On the other hand, Abraham Lincoln’s Civil War utterly torpedoes his peace rating, since there were peaceful alternatives to freeing the slaves, that had been used by Britain and Mexico, and that Lincoln himself had been even considering.

    Thanks for commenting, and I hope this helps.

  3. Thanks, Sir. You are one of the handful I follow regularly, since I found when looking for others opinions on The Last Chronicles around Fatal Seven and time frame. I enjoy your articles, and even when I disagree, your opinions are always reasoned and well though out.

    I also enjoy that at least half of the most recent comments are always about Stan Uris and the Sewer Orgy and The order to read the Elric Saga

  4. The biggest issue I have with mainstream ranking is that they seem to blindly follow in Arthur Schlesinger’s footsteps. He basically put the Presidents through Truman in their places and their seems to be little re-evaluation. Presidents that have fallen since his original ranking do so more because new presidents are added than anything else. I think most historians, when ranking presidents that they don’t specialize in, just look to past polls and are unwilling to rock the boat. If it is a president that they do specialize in, they will at that point go against their peers, but it does little to move a presidents ranking.

    What Stephen Ambrose and Kenneth Davis are talking about is effectiveness, not greatness. Lyndon Johnson was quite effective, and one could probably call him the most effective president ever, as he got nearly everything he wanted out of Congress in five years. You have to judge the consequences of those actions to judge greatness though. Johnson does seem to get a positive ranking at least partly on his effectiveness. Benjamin Harrison, who got everything he wanted except civil rights laws, which were blocked by filibusters in the Senate, doesn’t get any positive points for his effectiveness however, and he didn’t have Vietnam to drag his ratings down. Which actually leads to another issue with the mainstream rankings: consistency. Harding is rated poorly, in large part, because he had an affair, but FDR, JFK, LBJ & Clinton see no such docking in their ratings. Grant & Harding get hit because there was some corruption during their terms, but it’s generally overrated, not a rarity that was confined to their terms, as some books seem to infer, and was only theft of money, not any actual undermining of the Constitution. Plus Grant & Harding never profited from the corruption, both took actions to limit and root out corruption and they only found out about it after the fact.

    I think rankers can get too personal with the ranking, which is why I don’t rank current or very recent Presidents. Sometimes a ranker might see it as a second or third chance to vote for, or against a certain president. Look at the Sienna rankings, they come out in a presidents second year in office, but when you consider the time it takes people to fill out the survey and return it, plus the time to compile the data, these rankings are more a prediction of how the respondents feel about the then current president. The first time Sienna Rankings are as follows:

    Obama 15
    Clinton 16
    Reagan 16
    Bush 18
    GW Bush 23
    Trump 42

    Sienna was fairer in the beginning with these initial ratings, but they certainly have gotten more politically based in the last three assessments.

    I think that is actually good that people come out with their own rankings. No two people will ever totally agree, as they will take different things into consideration and they will look at different events from different points of view. I do enjoy reading your series, keep up the good work.

  5. Schlesinger is definitely the major culprit, and yes, the “effectiveness” bias in grading the presidents becomes nearly as consuming as the charisma bias. I think your idea of waiting to rank the recent presidents is actually good, though I’m happy with my evaluations of W. Bush and Obama, and am confident they will stand the test of time. For me the danger isn’t being personal (since I’m able to give my enemies a fair shake when they deserve it), but rather that the passage of time can show even more clearly how good or disastrous a president’s policies have proven. For example, I would have graded Woodrow Wilson as being a failure if I had lived in the 1920’s, but how more clearly his failures stand out decades later.

    • Time gives perspective, what looks good or bad today, might look quite different in the future. Most people thought that Gerald Ford was wrong to pardon Nixon at the time, but over time the decision has been shown to be a good one. That’s one of the reasons that perspective is needed. Biases also fade over time, both Eisenhower and Reagan were both ranked poorly initially, but once some time passed, rankers personal feelings gave way to a more accurate rating.

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