The Top Ten Presidents

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Ranking The Presidents

How 78 scholars in history, political science, and law rated the men from Washington to Clinton.

By James Lindgren*

Sponsors: Federalist Society--Wall Street Journal

Project Directors: Steven Calabresi, Leonard Leo and C. David Smith 

            The reputations of presidents rise and fall.  As experts on the presidency gain more perspective, their rankings of some presidents, such as John Kennedy, have fallen, while their impressions of others, such as Harry Truman, have risen.  Even some presidents long dead have taken reputational stumbles.  For example, the presidencies of James Madison, John Adams, and John Quincy Adams are no longer as highly regarded as they used to be. 

            This study reports results from the latest survey of 78 scholars on the presidency.  Unlike most prior studies, this study surveyed experts on presidential history and politics from the fields of law and political science, as well as from history.  Moreover, we explicitly balanced the group to be surveyed with approximately equal numbers of experts on the left and the right.  Because political leanings can influence professional judgments, we think that these are the most politically unbiased estimates of presidential reputation yet obtained for American presidents.

To choose the scholars to be surveyed, we had three expert panels of two scholars in each field come up with a list of experts in their field.  The six scholars who consulted on the makeup of the sample  were Akhil Reed Amar (Yale University), Alan Brinkley (Columbia University), Steven G. Calabresi (Northwestern University), James W. Ceaser (University of Virginia), Forrest McDonald (University of Alabama), and Stephen Skrowronek (Yale University).

We tried to choose approximately equal numbers of scholars who lean to the left and to the right.  Our goal was to present the opinions of experts, controlling for political orientation.  Another way to express this is that we sought to mirror what scholarly opinion might be on the counterfactual assumption that the academy was politically representative of the society in which we live and work. This study attempts to resolve the conflict between prior rankings of presidents done mostly by liberal scholars or mostly by conservative scholars, but not by both together.

As in prior studies, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt continue to be the most esteemed presidents.  Also like other studies, Democratic presidents tend to be rated higher than Republican presidents (though insignificantly so), both overall and since 1857.

            No demographic data were collected on the 78 respondents (59% response rate)--30 historians, 25 political scientists, and 23 law professors.  Where possible, we have quoted from the comments of scholars who responded to the survey.

Each scholar was asked to rate each President on a standard social science five-point scale from well below average to highly superior and to name the most over- and underrated presidents.[4]  Historian Paula Baker was one of many scholars who explained her criteria: “Highly superior and above average presidents made the most of what circumstances provided, and in a few cases, reoriented their parties and public life.”

The scholars we surveyed were supposed to rate them as presidents, but undoubtedly their other accomplishments sometimes affected the ratings.  One respondent explicitly rejected this tendency, “Some of the low-ranking presidents [as he ranked them], such as John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, and William Howard Taft, were able men who contributed a great deal to the nation, but not as president.” 

This strange modern genre of presidential rankings was initiated in 1948 by Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., who repeated his study in 1962.  In 1996 his son, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., replicated the study.  Our study, conducted in October 2000, found remarkably similar results to the last Schlesinger study.  The correlation between the ranks in the two studies is a staggeringly high .94.  The main difference between the two studies is that Ronald Reagan ranks eighth in our study, while he ranked 25th  (out of 39 presidents) in Schlesinger’s 1996 study.

Compared to the Schlesinger study, there are some methodological differences.  Like Schlesinger, we surveyed 30 historians, but in place of his two politicians (Mario Cuomo and former Senator Paul Simon), we surveyed 25 political scientists and 23 law professors.  While Schlesinger surveyed one woman and no non-white minorities, about 15% of our respondents were women and minorities, a substantial proportion only by comparison.  We believe that we also surveyed more young professors than Schlesinger did.

 

* Professor of Law; Director, Demography of Diversity Project; Northwestern University. J.D., 1977, University of Chicago; B.A., 1974, Yale University; currently Ph.D. Student, Sociology, University of Chicago.  I would like to thank my colleague at Northwestern Steven Calabresi and Leonard Leo and C. David Smith of the Federalist Society, who designed and implemented the survey and data collection.  After they collected the data, they were extraordinarily kind to offer it to me for analysis.  I very much appreciate the joint sponsorship of the Wall Street Journal and the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy.  Some of the data from this article are expected to be published in the Wall Street Journal in one or more installments starting in mid-November 2000.

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Rating the Presidents: Washington to Clinton, 112 Political Science Quarterly 179 (1997) (mostly liberal scholars); William J. Ridings, Jr. and Stuart B. McIver, Rating the Presidents: From the Great and Honorable to the Dishonest and Incompetent (1997) (presumably mostly liberal scholars); Alvin S. Felzenberg, “There You Go Again”: Liberal Historians and the New York Times Deny Ronald Reagan His Due, Policy Review, March-April 1997 (criticized by Schlesinger as “inviting the same suspicion” of political bias as his panel, though from the other side).

 

We asked them to rank all 41 presidents but dropped the data on James Garfield and William Harrison because of their very brief terms in office. 

The scholars were asked: “Please rate each president using the table below.  In deciding how to rate a president, please take into consideration the value of the accomplishments of his presidency and the leadership he provided the nation, along with any other criteria you deem appropriate.”

 

PRESIDENT             HIGHLY                    ABOVE                      AVERAGE                BELOW              WELL BELOW

                                     SUPERIOR              AVERAGE                                                    AVERAGE                AVERAGE

 

The scholars were asked: “Please identify the five most overrated or underrated Presidents of the United States, indicating whether they are overrated or underrated.”  They were given five blank lines and were given the opportunity to circle “UNDERRATED” or “OVERRATED.”  

See Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Rating the Presidents: Washington to Clinton, 112 Political Science Quarterly 179, 179 (1997) (describing his father’s studies for Life Magazine in 1948 and the New York Times Magazine in 1962).  

(1996 study, results published first in the New York Times Magazine in 1996, followed by a scholarly paper published in 1997).  

This result comes after correcting the Schlesinger ranks for several arithmetical errors (he appears not to have used a spreadsheet, since, e.g., the second category was weighted 2 points for some presidents and 1 point for most presidents), but making no changes in coding.  Besides arithmetical errors, the Schlesinger study coded the bottom category in their 5 category scale –2, 3 points below the category just above it.  With more conventional coding (an even one point spread between categories), the correlation is .956 with our ranks is a stunning R2 of .913.  If you leave out the one outlier, Ronald Reagan, the correlation between ranks is .970, with an R2 of .940.