I continue to read through Presidential biographies, but it has become clear that posting the ranking on the bottom of each post is getting unsustainable. It’s already over 1500 words, so I decided to break it off onto its own post. I’ll update this as I continue through the Presidents, so this is my catch-all page for the ranking. It will also have links to my look more closely at each President.
THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES*
My criteria for ranking the Presidents will be somewhat arbitrary. Random things I’ve thought of so far is whether they improved our infrastructure, how Presidential they acted/looked, whether they got us into any silly wars, and the like. As you can see, these criteria are somewhat… subjective. But unlike those scholar surveys and others, I don’t cover up clear biases with words like “objective” and the like. You’ll probably end up disagreeing with me at some points. I look forward to your comments!
1. Abraham Lincoln (16th President – Original Ranking #1)- Abraham Lincoln is certainly one of the best leaders our country has ever had. Though he was not perfect, he managed to lead our country through an incredibly difficult time and reunite what was torn asunder. His story of going from rural farmboy to President is about as much the American Dream as one could ask for. He helped to usher in the possibility of that American Dream through his anti-slavery actions, though it is not entirely clear how much he favored equality of all people. His fingerprints are on much of what our country is and has become to this day.
2. George Washington (1st President- original ranking- #1): Washington basically defined the office of the President for all who followed him. It was left intentionally vague by the framers, so he had to work within those strictures while trying to expand on them. Not easy, but he seems to have done it rather ably, refusing to become a major partisan while still demanding certain powers of the Executive Branch. During his Presidency the national bank was created, the country’s credit recovered, massive trade booms occurred, the Mississippi was opened for exploration, and beneficial partnerships with other countries were being formed. On the other hand, during his Presidency and life generally, slavery was tolerated and even expanded, Native Americans were brutalized, and throughout it all Washington either participated directly or turned his face the other way. It is difficult to underestimate the impact of Washington on the office of the President. On the other hand, we ought not to lionize him or see him as perfection itself.
3. Ulysses S. Grant (18th President – Original Ranking #3)- Often dismissed as a footnote for his Presidency and talked up as a General instead, Grant was, in fact, one of the more effective Presidents when it came to some areas where it mattered most. A principled man, when he identified an evil, he worked vociferously to attack it. His war on the KKK was effective and waged with as much acumen as he dealt with troops on the battlefield, helping to end at least some of the terror levied against black citizens. He worked to rebuild relationships with Jewish citizens after making a poor choice earlier in his career. He tried (but failed) to walk a line between honoring treaties with Native Americans, bringing peace, and pleasing whites intent on expansion.
4. Thomas Jefferson (3rd President- original ranking- #2): Jefferson’s accomplishments as President, Secretary of State, and Revolutionary cannot be understated. He deftly handled relationships with such countries as France and Spain, while also helping to secure borders of the United States for decades to come. One of the biggest splashes of his Presidency was the Louisiana Purchase, which vastly increased the size of the country. However, Jefferson was also a blatant womanizer, a slave owner who pandered to abolitionist leanings while owning slaves, was clearly racist, and encouraged the destruction of Native groups living on the land that was “purchased” from Napoleon. Back on the positive side, he advocated for religious tolerance–even of other faiths–despite his Deistic leanings. His diplomatic skill is beyond dispute. He actively sought compromise and valued even minority opinions–lessons we need to re-learn now. The legacy he left would impact almost every aspect of the country going forward, for good or ill. It is difficult to fully analyze such a complex, contradictory man.
5. Rutherford B. Hayes (19th President – Original Ranking #5)- Rutherford B. Hayes was a reform-minded President in an era that needed it. He actively worked to thwart racism against Chinese, Native Americans, and African Americans, but in the long-term, his efforts failed. He naively believed that the Southern elites would hold true to their promises to defend black voters, while also taking the pragmatic path in withdrawing federal oversight from the governance of southern states. Despite these failures, Hayes also had much success. He did manage to thwart some of the rising racist sentiment, going directly to the Chinese government to negotiate a mutually agreeable treaty regarding immigration (despite this being guided by racial bias, Hayes managed to secure a lesser of two evils). He wielded his power to veto with authority to smack down southern congresspeople who tried to gut the 15th Amendment. He worked for prison and education reform and succeeded in bringing at least some of the change he saw as necessary. His administration stopped the depression by backing the dollar while also backing a moderate policy about labor that ultimately secured some small modicum of rights for the laborers. Hayes has undeservedly been forgotten in most surveys of United States history, but his impact is bigger than may be thought. His active work to curtail many of the evils of our country, though not saving it, did manage to salvage it from some of the worst possible turns. Thrust into an unenviable time, he succeeded in at least finding some of the light in the darkness, and doing so in a commendable way.
6. James Madison (4th President- original ranking- #3): Called the “Father of the Constitution,” Madison’s impact is perhaps most important for what he did prior to becoming President. The sheer amount of work he did to get the Constitution written, improve upon it, amend it, and put it to vote is astonishing. As President, perhaps the most important event in his career was the War of 1812, itself a possible foreshadowing of the many and sundry conflicts the United States has entered with tenuous justification since. Though often disastrous, the War did lead to, somewhat paradoxically, better relations between the United States and Britain going forward. Perhaps it is best said that Madison was the consummate compromiser, for good or ill. As with many others, his owning of slaves directly conflicted with his affirmation of the idea that all people are created equal.
7. John Quincy Adams (6th President – original ranking #4): It would be easy to argue that John Quincy Adams was a more successful member of Congress and Foreign Minister than he was a President, and I would concede that argument. So yes, I absolutely tilted his score based on his achievements outside of the Presidency, but that’s because they were such monumental and important achievements it is tough to mark him down due to the opposition his Presidency received. What were those achievements? He negotiated the end of the War of 1812, drafted the Monroe Doctrine, helped shape our country through treaties regarding borders along Canada, Florida, Texas, and California, successfully regained the right of petition for the American people, and stood up against slavery in the courts–specifically with the Amistad case. Yeah, I think that’s worth a significant bump on this list.
8. James Monroe (5th President – original ranking- #4): Monroe was a master of foreign policy, and his Presidency and political career reflected that. Certainly left his mark on U.S. policy in ways that we still feel regarding Europe and South America in particular. Probably to be considered a “moderate” regarding relations with Native Americans and for his stance on slavery, though his positions were still bigoted and rather arrogant regarding both groups of people. Little by way of scandal (see Jefferson for an early example of some rather scandalous things going on with Presidents), so that makes him more Presidential than some. Also, he appeared to be a loving husband and father, overall.
9. James K. Polk (11th President- original ranking- #6): James Polk achieved the goals that he set for himself as he entered the office of the President. As his biographer, Walter Borneman points out, those goals were “resolve the joint occupation of Oregon, acquire California, reduce the tariff, and establish an independent treasury” (Polk, 353). Polk accomplished all of these goals, though it took a war to do so. Moreover, he expanded the power of the executive branch, including in the President’s powers regarding war, getting directly involved in helping order the conflict. His clear belief in Manifest Destiny, that doctrine that ought to be consigned to the trash heap of history, continues to influence nationalism today. The unspeakable atrocities that continued to be perpetrated on those peoples native to the land the United States would gain in international eyes though his Presidency must not be understated. Nevertheless, it would be difficult to find many Presidents with greater impact on our country than Polk had.
10. John Adams (2nd President- original ranking- #2): There’s something to be said for the fact that Adams basically held the line against all the forces threatening to either break the United States back apart or subsume it under an “alliance” that would turn it into a kind of vassal state. Adams did that, and he managed to keep the US out of another war in its infancy. The political treatises Adams wrote went on to define the constitutions of many states and help clarify the relationship between the state and federal government. Adams did, however, fail to hold his own political party together, whether through inaction or simply not being charismatic enough or willing enough to step into the leadership role he needed to take. Moreover, Adams was an absentee (at best) father and husband.
11. Chester Arthur (21st President – Original Ranking #11)- Overall, Arthur as President was very, very different from Arthur as political machine proponent, and, again, it’s difficult to evaluate him because of that. He pushed for reform of the appointment system as well as disenfranchising political machines in Washington while doing what he thought was right regarding people of non-white backgrounds. Though many of his efforts failed, this was in part due to the opposition from the very political machines he’d used to rise to power. How does one evaluate such a man, who seemed a despot hungry for money and power one moment, and a reasonable, even-handed person once in power? The test of time has shown us little of his impact directly, though our Naval power is one tangible evidence. Arthur was a corrupt man who, strangely, turned towards a more moral rule once he gained the Presidency.
12. Benjamin Harrison (23rd President – Original Ranking #12)- Benjamin Harrison was an important stepping stone on the path to the modern presidency, for better or worse. He took it upon himself to increase the authority of that position, but he did so in a frankly rather boring fashion, particularly related to extensive debates back and forth about gold and silver standards. During his tenure, foreign affairs in the Aleutian Islands, Hawaii, and Chile were dealt with in a sometimes deft, sometimes blundering manner. His policy towards Native Americans was that of assimilation, and despite massacres on his watch, he apparently felt himself successful. He wasn’t the most exciting President, and certainly not the best, but for whatever faults he had, he can be endorsed by the underwhelming stamp of approval called “not the worst.”
13. Grover Cleveland (22nd and 24th President – Original Ranking #12)- Grover Cleveland was an ambitious politician who largely stuck to his conservatism, despite his apparent inconsistency looking in from the outside. His apparent callousness might be seen by some as consistency of conservative principles. His attempts to continue reform of the public offices stirred up vicious opposition to his presidencies. Ever a friend of the status quo, it is difficult to see how this may have harmed or benefited the United States even more than a hundred years later. His legacy is uneven, but also largely free of the worst of all moral failings, despite some examples. His intense belief in the superiority of America and Americanism is another part of his legacy, whether that includes the attempts to forcibly assimilate Native Americans (seen by many at the time as a reform–and it was, compared to actively genocidal policies) or his relations with other countries, Cleveland was an example of a President who truly tried to put America First, for better or ill, and to do so in a way that left each person to themselves. Additionally, Cleveland essentially expanded government authority despite his disavowal of the same.
14. Martin Van Buren (8th President- original ranking- #7): How do you analyze a man who was perhaps first and foremost a politician? Though that word has become something of a pejorative depending on its usage now, Van Buren didn’t play the system so much as he created one. He created what would develop into the modern day political party, taking what Andrew Jackson had started and running with it. He did so on a local and then national level, leveraging it to eventually become President of the United States. His continuation of Jackson’s policies towards Native groups caused enormous harm. His outright support of slavery may be baffling in light of his being remembered by contemporaries as a voracious abolitionist, but this change in policy was later in life and cynics may argue that it was a policy of convenience. He struggled as President to get much passed, largely due to his shouldering the blame for the economic crisis that greeted the beginning of his Presidency. His political skill helped create our modern political system, for better or ill. No matter what you think of him, he does at least give me the chance to use my new favorite phrase of this list: “He’s still a better President than Andrew Jackson.”
15. John Tyler (10th President- Original ranking- #8): The Accidental President helped to solidify the role of the President while also balancing concerns for his party and his own political beliefs. As a Congress member and as President he remained adamantly allied to slavery and a slaveholder. He strengthened the position of the President and helped clarify the office’s role in our three party system. He was a major supporter of states’ rights, but again this was largely due to his support of slavery over and against any move by the federal government to oppose it. An enigmatic, oft-forgotten President who may have had more influence than we would think.
16. Zachary Taylor (12th President- Original Ranking #10)- Taylor had what one might envision as a “standard” story of a soldier rising to the Presidency. But he was also a “gentleman farmer” (read: Virginian slaveowner who used slave labor to bolster his wealth). Interestingly, he may be considered something of a moderate in a time when there were very few moderates. His opposition to things like the Fugitive Slave Act and prioritization of the Union over the interest of the State or region makes for an interesting “What if?” scenario had he survived his entire Presidency and changed more of the course of the country. His life was less interesting than other Presidents, and in death he opened the path for events that would lead to the Civil War–not that he had any control over his timing. The best that can be said for Taylor is that pondering what may have happened had he lived can occupy a great deal of time. He wasn’t particularly effective or country-shaping as President. He was a man of his time, but one who broke the trend by favoring the Union over his own interests.
17. Franklin Pierce (14th President – Original Ranking #11) There is little historic doubt that Pierce’s Presidency agitated the fires of secession rather than calming them, though perhaps not directly. His hatred of abolitionists and general placation of the South certainly doesn’t improve with historical analysis, but it also led to the stirring up of those same abolitionists into a true, rival, political power. Pierce’s attempts to tow his party line and keep the country (and his party) unified at all costs ultimately failed, but it could also be argued that the wheels were already churning before Pierce came into the office. Surprisingly, he attempted a number of compromises which ended up simply exacerbating the two sides of several issues. Generally seen as among the worst Presidents on outcomes, I ended up coming out of reading on Pierce with an admiration for the man. He stuck to his values, even when it cost him political clout or other interest in himself. Though his values were frequently wrong, that he tried to navigate them in an increasingly difficult situation is admirable. Nevertheless, his favoring of Southern interests on slavery is particularly despicable, and his handling of Bleeding Kansas, the Native Americans associated with it, and many other issues was quite poorly done. Does he deserve a ranking in the bottom 5-10 Presidents? Possibly. But having him end up here–ranked beneath other, less principled or consistent persons who didn’t seek compromise, feels like an accident of history more than a reflection on his competence.
18. James Garfield (20th President – Original Ranking #14)- James Garfield didn’t accomplish much as a President due to the violent act of assassination against him, but what he did has impacts into today. He worked against corruption and continued to undermine the system that led to a “good ol’ boys club” in regards to the appointment of nominations for certain offices. He worked for rights for African Americans, but did so in an extremely inconsistent way. He also favored civil service reforms. Assassinated less than a year into his Presidency, it is an interesting question of what he may have accomplished if he had a whole term.
19. William Henry Harrison (9th President- Original ranking- #8): I know the immediate complaint for not having Harrison at the bottom would be something like “He was barely President for a month! How can he outrank… anyone?” First, the sheer amount of damage that the/those President(s) ranked beneath Harrison did to our country and people moves them lower. As my new saying goes, “Still a better President than Andrew Jackson.” Second, Harrison’s own potential damage to our country was limited as President, but he still deserves a rank quite low not just because he did very little as President but because his whole body of work is a testament to how poorly the U.S. has treated those it considers “other.”
20. James Buchanan (15th President – Original Ranking #13)- Often ranked as the worst overall President, Buchanan’s legacy was demolished by the Civil War. He made every effort to preserve the Union, sometimes changing his position with the mood of the times, sometimes not. But always, he bowed to the interests of Southern states. The preservation of the Union was something he prized far more than the equality of people or the abolition of slavery, an institution he said he deplored and found evil but made every effort to preserve from the abolitionists. His biographer entitled a chapter “Cursed are the Peacemakers” in an attempt to point to his work for peace, but is peace a worthy goal with slavery? One’s answer to that question will largely determine what one thinks of Buchanan’s legacy.
21. Andrew Jackson (7th President- original ranking- #7): I’m genuinely flabbergasted by how Jackson manages to get ranked so highly on so many lists of Presidents. On the positive side, he did help prevent an earlier Civil War by, eventually, ending the nullification crisis. He defined the office of President as representative of the people. He also was the first to truly form up a political party around himself and help use it to shape the dynamics of policy. Not an unimpressive list of accomplishments. Yet he was also an extremely staunch defender of slavery, to the point of failing in his office to enforce the law by allowing freedom of speech to be impeded by federal postmasters through the south. He personally oversaw slaughters of Native groups and set up and endorsed policies that would lead to countless thousands of deaths and atrocities against Native Americans. He callously saw only white people as worthy of the words of the Constitution, as demonstrated in both of these actions. Moreover, he used federal power and authority only when it suited him–if he wanted something to happen, he had no qualms about using federal authority; if he did not, he shamelessly looked the other way. He was concerned primarily with himself and ensuring his own success. He is vastly overrated.
22. Millard Fillmore (13th President- Original Ranking: 13)- Fillmore put into practice those horrors that Jackson set up, for the same reasoning. He protected the interests of those he cared about: nativist racist whites. He allowed for the stripping of Jewish American rights abroad. He pursued the Fugitive Slave Act with the vigor of one who saw it as the highest good. He used federal resources time and again in defense of slavery. After his Presidency, he joined the Know-Nothings so that he could let his nativism truly shine, with their anti-Catholic, anti-immigration rhetoric that spread fear in order to pass policies that favored wealthy white protestants. He was a tool of slaveowners and, when he had power, he used it to full effect in ways that demonstrably did not assist all Americans. He was a terrible President whose only interests were those of expanding the influence and economic success of the narrow sphere of people he felt deserved it.
23. Andrew Johnson (17th President – Original Ranking #17)- Andrew Johnson was an unapologetic racist whose opposition to Radical Reconstruction policies damaged our country in ways that continue to have negative impact to this day. His completely capitulation to Southern interests, including allowing Southern whites to murder black people at will, is totally disgusting. His ineptitude at command contributes to his low ranking, as he totally failed to do anything but push for the policies he favored instead of attempting any kind of compromise whatsoever. He was a racist brute who is a disgrace to our country’s history.
*Rankings not definitive
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