Presidents Day — Listing the best and worst

Filed in Gather News Channel by on February 21, 2011 0 Comments

Presidents Day is a combined holiday fusing what were once the separate observations of Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays (fused by Richard Nixon and set on the third Monday in February) They are generally regarded as our best presidents and are two of the four faces on Mount Rushmore. How do the ones who are implied by the holiday of Presidents Day (if not specifically mentioned) come out?

Listing presidents from best to worst can be problematic when dealing with arguably the most polarizing tenants of the White House as well as with the most recent ones (as their administrations haven’t receded far enough into the past to be completely called history).  Both aspects of that came to the fore in 2006 when historian Sean Wilentz held George W. Bush to be the worst U.S. President in history, citing a 2004 survey in which a sizable majority reached the same verdict.  The potential problems with such a judgment being made in the middle of Bush’s term in office should be obvious.

The history of such rankings goes back to a 1948 survey by historian Arthur Schlesinger, who polled 55 historians for Life magazine.  Lincoln, Washington and FDR came out on top while the bottom three spots where held by Harding, Grant, and Pierce.  Siena College did a 2010 survey which, in addition to an overall ranking, ranked them by categories such as Handling of US Economy, Domestic Accomplishments, etc.  There is also a category called Background (Family, Education, Experience) which apparently ranks pre-White House experience.  Unfortunately, their chart of a .pdf rather than an .xls, makes it unsortable.  Top five are FDR, Theodore Roosevelt, Lincoln, Washington, and Jefferson.  Bottom five are (from the bottom up) Andrew Johnson, Buchanan, Harding, Pierce, and George W. Bush.  A press release breaking down some of the categories is here.

It seems that one might’ve considered asterisks for William Henry Harrison and James Garfield as neither of them lasted very long (32 days and 200 days, respectively) although Garfield did get a Supreme Court appointment. Some polls, in fact, exclude them from the ranking for that reason. Van Buren ranks near the bottom in the Luck category presumably because of the Panic of 1837 breaking out in his first year; however, Van Buren was the Vice-President during the two terms of Andrew Jackson and one wonders to what extent he made his luck with whatever influence he had on Jackson’s policies.

There have been a great many polls with Siena’s 2010 survey being its fifth.  Lincoln, Washington, and FDR generally occupy the top three slots (with Jefferson and T. Roosevelt occasionally stepping in) and Buchanan, Pierce, and Harding generally occupy the bottom three slot (with a couple of entries by Andrew Johnson and William Henry Harrison — but see my cavil about the latter).

Exercise for President’s Day: thoughts anyone–any reader lists out there?

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