Word of the Arthur M. Schlesinger U.S. presidential poll of 1948 first came to me in a high school history class during the 1950s. My teacher, an avid Republican, was slightly perturbed that Franklin D. Roosevelt had fared so well with historians. However, she used the poll to stimulate our young minds about presidents. Looking back, it is revealing that the Schlesinger exercise should have won favor in a small class in a very small high school, and that it spawned so many successors. Both points serve to explain the proliferation of presidential polls since World War II: they interest us, accustomed as we are to ranking things in society, from high school athletic teams to rental car companies.
In late June, C-SPAN released its 2021 Historians Survey of Presidential Leadership. The 142 presidential historians and professional students of the office were asked to consider ten characteristics, among them: crisis leadership, international relations, administrative skills, pursuit of equal justice for all, and moral authority.
The top three in the survey have occupied those spots in most previous presidential polls: Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Waging war, Lincoln preserved the Union and transformed the nation with his Emancipation Proclamation. Washington fought for the Constitution and successfully steered a new nation into being. Roosevelt, the only president elected four times, dealt with the Great Depression by establishing a vast array of government programs to stimulate prosperity, gave voice to people who did not have power, and led the Grand Alliance to victory in World War II.
Middle positions in the survey include Bill Clinton, U.S. Grant, and George H.W. Bush. The latter, for example, receives high marks for his cautious approach to the Soviet Union. Though the stage was set by Ronald Reagan, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War occurred during Bush’s presidency. With no shots fired. But the home front proved more problematic. Worsening economic conditions and rising unemployment cost him reelection.
The three ranked lowest can be found at the bottom of every poll since the first ranking of presidents in 1948: James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, and Franklin Pierce. There they will stay unless we elect worse. All were Civil War-era presidents, unequal to the tasks before them. After seven states seceded, Buchanan, the last president before Lincoln, said “I can’t do anything about it.”
Partisans of Donald Trump will not be pleased with last month’s poll. The historians placed him among the lowest, just above Pierce, A. Johnson, and Buchanan. He scored the worst in moral authority and administrative skills. Weighing heavily against him is his handling of the Covid-19 crisis, his refusal to accept the results of the Nov. 3 election, and his encouragement of the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6. No previous president had ever asked state officials to “find” votes that would overturn a presidential election. Thomas Balcerski, author of a James Buchanan biography and a participant in the C-SPAN Survey, has commented that to debut among the worst augurs poorly for future rankings: “Once historians have decided a president’s place in history, they rarely leave the basement of American history.”
Between the top and bottom echelons, however, positions do change, though not drastically as in the cases of Dwight Eisenhower and Andrew Jackson. Historians in the 1962 Schlesinger poll placed Eisenhower in the 22nd position; but in the 1982 Murray-Blessing evaluations he rose to ninth and this year’s C-Span evaluation places him in the fifth spot.
Today it’s better appreciated that he not only kept the cold war with Russia from becoming hot, but that after ending the Korea War, he wisely chose not to enter others that later proved unwinnable, such as Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The unfolding of events after his presidency provided necessary context for a more realistic evaluation.
Andrew Jackson moved in the opposite direction, falling from sixth place in the Schlesinger poll all the way to No. 22 in this year’s C-SPAN report. Historians no longer turn away from Jackson’s strong pro-slavery views and his ethnic-cleansing of 60,000 Native Americans. Their forced march westward along a Trail of Tears caused all to suffer and a third of them to die.
In the case of each president, a substantial passage of time is necessary before a creditable evaluation becomes possible. Sometimes new data comes to light, and, in the case of recent presidents, partisan political passions must have subsided.
It is well to reflect, too, that when historians (and the public) offer evaluations, they are also making statements about themselves.
Ron Lora, a native of Bluffton, is professor emeritus of history at the University of Toledo. His column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of The Lima News. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.