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The best US presidents, as ranked by presidential historians

By Hannah S December 24, 2019 0 comments

Abraham Lincoln remains America’s best president, if the opinion of presidential historians is anything to go by. In C-SPAN’s latest survey of presidential leadership (pdf), which polled 91 presidential historians, Lincoln retained “top billing” as the country’s most esteemed leader. James Buchanan came in last place, beating out William Henry Harrison, who only served for 31 days.

In his first appearance in the survey, last conducted in 2009, Barack Obama was ranked 12th, sandwiched between Woodrow Wilson and James Monroe. George W. Bush “benefitted somewhat from the passing of the years,” moving to #33 from #36 in 2009.

The survey ranked the former leaders on 10 ”attributes of leadership.” These ranged from the moral categories of ”crisis leadership,” “moral authority,” “pursued equal justice for all,” to the more technical ones of “economic management,” “administrative skills,” “performance within context of times,” and “setting an agenda,” and included relations with the public, Congress, and other governments.

“The golden age of the American presidency, according to this survey, is 1933-1969,” writes presidential scholar Richard Norton Smith. “Five presidents from this era each rank in the top 10 which tells you something about the criteria that historians tend to use. It reinforces Franklin Roosevelt’s claim to be not only the first modern president but the man who, in reinventing the office, also established the criteria by which we judge our leaders.”

Here is the full ranking of US presidents from the latest survey, which you can read more about at this link.

President 2017 ranking 2009 2000
Abraham Lincoln 1 1 1
George Washington 2 2 3
Franklin D. Roosevelt 3 3 2
Theodore Roosevelt 4 4 4
Dwight D. Eisenhower 5 8 9
Harry S. Truman 6 5 5
Thomas Jefferson 7 7 7
John F. Kennedy 8 6 8
Ronald Reagan 9 10 11
Lyndon Baines Johnson 10 11 10
Woodrow Wilson 11 9 6
Barack Obama 12 N/A N/A
James Monroe 13 14 14
James K. Polk 14 12 12
Bill Clinton 15 15 21
William McKinley Jr. 16 16 15
James Madison 17 20 18
Andrew Jackson 18 13 13
John Adams 19 17 16
George H. W. Bush 20 18 20
John Quincy Adams 21 19 19
Ulysses S. Grant 22 23 33
Grover Cleveland 23 21 17
William H. Taft 24 24 24
Gerald R. Ford Jr. 25 22 23
Jimmy Carter 26 25 22
Calvin Coolidge 27 26 27
Richard M. Nixon 28 27 25
James A. Garfield 29 28 29
Benjamin Harrison 30 30 31
Zachary Taylor 31 29 28
Rutherford B. Hayes 32 33 26
George W. Bush 33 36 N/A
Martin Van Buren 34 31 30
Chester Arthur 35 32 32
Herbert Hoover 36 34 34
Millard Fillmore 37 37 35
William Henry Harrison 38 39 37
John Tyler 39 35 36
Warren G. Harding 40 38 38
Franklin Pierce 41 40 39
Andrew Johnson 42 41 40
James Buchanan 43 42 41

Correction: An earlier version of this article said Barack Obama was ranked 13th in the survey. He was ranked 12th. 


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