C-SPAN put out its fourth Presidential Historians Survey recently.
This year 142 historians, biographers, and professors participated in the survey, ranking each of the past presidents in 10 areas: Public persuasion; crisis leadership; economic management; moral authority; international relations; administrative skills; relations to Congress; vision/setting an agenda; pursued equal justice for all; and performance within context of times.
The first survey was published in 2000, then not again until 2009 when we got a new president who was not part of that survey, but George W. Bush was added to those presidents being ranked at that time. 2017 was the last survey, and the first to include Barack Obama. This year’s survey is the first to include Donald Trump.
The same top four presidents have held their positions in the rankings since 2000: 1. Abraham Lincoln; 2. George Washington; 3. Franklin Roosevelt; and 4. Theodore Roosevelt.
Presidents finishing out the top 10 this year were: Dwight Eisenhower; Harry Truman; Thomas Jefferson; John F. Kennedy; Ronald Reagan; and Barack Obama.
Two presidents have been in the top 10 but then slid below that: Lyndon Johnson (11 now and also in 2009, was ranked No. 10 in 2017 and in 2000); Woodrow Wilson (13 now, was ranked No. 11 in 2017 but No. 9 in 2009 and No. 6 in 2000).
The president who has made the greatest gains throughout the years has been Ulysses S. Grant. In 2000 he was ranked 33rd. In 2009 he rose to 23rd. In 2017 he was ranked 22nd, and now he’s at No. 20, just one notch below Bill Clinton, who often loses points with some participating in the surveys because of his impeachment.
At the bottom of the presidential barrel we find William Henry Harrison ranked at 40. I don’t see why he’s even given consideration since he was only president for 31 days. Still, he beats Donald Trump, our only president to be impeached twice, who is ranked at No. 41.
Trump scored highest in Public Persuasion. His lowest score was for Moral Authority. In fact, he scored the lowest in this survey among all 44 men who have occupied the White House, not only in Moral Authority, but in Administrative Skills. Franklin Pierce, who is ranked No. 42, tied with Trump in his overall score.
Here’s an excerpt of what was written about Pierce by Pulitzer Prize winning historian Roy F. Nichols. It has been published in “The Encyclopedia of New Hampshire”: As a national political leader Pierce was an accident. He was honest and tenacious of his views but, as he made up his mind with difficulty and often reversed himself before making a final decision, he gave a general impression of instability … His inability to cope with the difficult problems that arose early in his administration caused him to lose the respect of great numbers, especially in the North, and his few successes failed to restore public confidence. He was an inexperienced man, suddenly called to assume a tremendous responsibility, who honestly tried to do his best without adequate training or temperamental fitness.
So who’s left? Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor and our first impeached president, at No. 43. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James Ford Rhodes wrote the following about Johnson in “History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850” (published in 1904): Johnson acted in accordance with his nature. He had intellectual force but it worked in a groove. Obstinate rather than firm it undoubtedly seemed to him that following counsel and making concessions were a display of weakness ... His quarrel with Congress prevented the readmission into the Union on generous terms of the members of the late Confederacy ... His pride of opinion, his desire to beat, blinded him to the real welfare of the South and of the whole country.
And at the very bottom of the list is Lincoln’s predecessor, James Buchanan, who did absolutely nothing as the country hurled itself toward Civil War. Remember seven states seceded from the Union while he was president, before Lincoln even took office.
Jean Baker writes in her book “James Buchanan” (2004): Americans have conveniently misled themselves about the presidency of James Buchanan, preferring to classify him as indecisive and inactive ... In fact Buchanan’s failing during the crisis over the Union was not inactivity, but rather his partiality for the South, a favoritism that bordered on disloyalty in an officer pledged to defend all the United States. He was that most dangerous of chief executives, a stubborn, mistaken ideologue whose principles held no room for compromise. His experience in government had only rendered him too self-confident to consider other views. In his betrayal of the national trust, Buchanan came closer to committing treason than any other president in American history.
I think Mr. Trump fits right in with those at the bottom of this survey.