The Day – Historians: Trump Wasn’t America’s Worst President
Despite being impeached twice, former President Donald Trump is not the worst president in US history, according to 142 presidential historians surveyed by C-SPAN, whose results were released Wednesday. .
But the investigation doesn’t give Trump anything to brag about either. He ranked below William Henry Harrison, who served only 31 days as president, and John Tyler, the only former president buried in a coffin draped in the Confederate flag.
So who ranked worse than Trump? According to historians, Presidents Franklin “Bleeding Kansas” Pierce, Andrew “First to Be Impeached” Johnson, and James “Failed to Stop the Civil War” Buchanan came last.
To be clear, this was an informal survey whose respondents were selected by C-SPAN, not a scientific poll. Dozens more historians were invited to respond to the survey this time than in previous years. C-SPAN said this should reflect “a new diversity of race, gender, age and philosophy”, but it also makes it harder to compare with previous surveys.
Yet the respondents are all distinguished presidential historians covering a wide range of perspectives, and there are insights to be drawn from their collective opinions.
Even with all the new participating historians, the top and bottom rankings remained unchanged. As of 2009, the four main presidents are: 1. Abraham Lincoln, 2. George Washington, 3. Franklin D. Roosevelt and 4. Theodore Roosevelt. (Washington and FDR switched places in the 2000 survey.) The bottom three have always been Pierce, Johnson and Buchanan, in that order.
The survey is only conducted when there is a change of administration, so that each presidency can be assessed as a whole. Historians do not rank presidents themselves. Instead, they are asked to rate each president from 1 to 10 out of 10 leadership categories; the averages of all scores are then ranked. The 10 categories are Public Persuasion, Crisis Leadership, Economic Management, Moral Authority, International Relations, Administrative Skills, Congressional Relations, Visioning/Agenda Setting, pursuit of equal justice for all and performance in the context of the times.
Trump earned his highest average score on public persuasion, in which he came 32nd. On moral authority and administrative skills, however, he came dead last.
Alexis Coe is one of the historians invited to do the survey for the first time, following his highly regarded 2020 book You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington. In her newsletter, she said she “jumped for joy” when she received the survey and then “tormented herself with every assessment” for months. What about visioning/setting an agenda for James K. Polk, who brought slaves to the White House and also annexed Texas? Warren G. Harding certainly has low moral authority, she wrote, but how low for his politics and how low for deceiving the first lady?
“I have yet to study a president who has a perfect 10,” Coe wrote.
The president whose reputation has improved the most over the past two decades? It’s Ulysses S. Grant, who started at No. 33 and is now ranked No. 20. Grant has had a number of sympathetic biographies in recent years, and these days he gets more credit for the reconstruction and his diplomacy than condemnation for his alleged corruption.
No president has fallen as much as Grant has risen during the same period; but Trump frontrunner Andrew Jackson fell the most, from No. 13 to No. 22. That may reflect shifting public attitudes. Soon, Jackson might come across the $20 bill.
Other interesting models are revealed in the rankings. All five presidents from 1933 to 1969 – FDR, Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson – rank in the top 11, making them the best group of presidents historians say that America has had. The worst period was from 1837 to 1869, with the notable exception of four-time champion Lincoln.
In 2017, former President Barack Obama entered the rankings at No. 12, although Howard University historian Edna Greene Medford warned the Washington Post at the time that “historians prefer to see the remotely passed, and only time will reveal its legacy”. Four years later, a little distance seems to do Obama’s legacy good; it is now ranked No. 10.
President Joe Biden will not be included in the C-SPAN investigation until he leaves office.
C-SPAN isn’t the only organization doing presidential rankings, and other recent investigations have included Trump before he left office. In 2018, when Boise State University interviewed presidential scholars for its Presidents & Executive Politics Presidential Greatness survey, Trump came in last. And that was before the two impeachments, the coronavirus pandemic and the Capitol insurrection.