How can President Donald Trump be judged by history? One day, we’ll have an answer, thanks to C-SPAN’s Presidential Historians Survey. Several presidents rose and fell in the rankings in the 2017 version, which polled 91 historians. Historians evaluated them based on 10 presidential leadership qualities, including economic management, international relations, crisis leadership, public persuasion skills, and whether they pursued equal justice for everyone. For the first time this year, of course, President Barack Obama has been added to the lineup. Which are the best presidents ranked?
43. James Buchanan (1857-1861)
For crisis leadership, Buchanan received very low rankings. In the years leading up to the Civil War, he couldn’t seem to grasp the enormity of America’s divisions over slavery, ignoring the strife and letting the issue grow out of control.
42. Andrew Johnson (1865-1869)
Historians gave Johnson meager ratings for butting heads with Congress. When Lincoln was assassinated, Johnson, who became president, refused to compromise with radical Republicans bent on combating the old Confederacy. He often tried to side-step them and was even faced with impeachment, but one vote acquitted him.
41. Franklin Pierce (1853-1857)
When it came to pursuing equal justice for all Americans, Pierce received low ratings. He signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act into law, allowing residents of new territories to decide for themselves on the legality of slavery.
40. Warren G. Harding (1921-1923)
In the rankings, the scandals plaguing Harding’s tenure in office, such as the infamous Teapot Dome scandal, in which cronies benefited from secret oil deals as well as his extramarital affair with Nan Britton, kept him low in rankings.
39. John Tyler (1841-1845)
Historians blame Tyler for his weak pursuit of equal justice for all Americans. When Tyler’s predecessor died, he became the first vice president ever elected to the presidency with a strong advocate for state rights. He joined the Southern Confederacy later on.
38. William Henry Harrison (1841)
Harrison received the lowest rankings for his crisis leadership skills, but since Harrison died on his 32nd day in office, historians have little to judge him. However, historian William W. Freehling calls him “the most dominant figure in the Northwest territories’ evolution into the Upper Midwest today.”
37. Millard Fillmore (1850-1853)
Historians have blamed Fillmore for signing the Fugitive Slave Act, which required the return of escaped slaves to their masters. Of course, in 1852, he failed to win the Whig presidential nomination. Still, four years later, he gained the nativist Know-Nothing Party’s endorsement and finished third in the presidential election of 1856.
36. Herbert Hoover (1929-1933)
The economic management rating of Hoover is dragging down his ranking. The stock market crashed months after his election, and the U.S. spiraled into the Great Depression. Hoover is still widely regarded as an inadequate U.S. president. However, he managed somewhat to rehabilitate his legacy, and most polls of historians and political scientists rank him in the bottom third overall.
35. Chester A. Arthur (1881-1885)
For his failure to ensure equal justice for all, Arthur gets low ratings. The first immigration law was enacted by his administration, which excluded Chinese people and “paupers, criminals, and lunatics.” Nevertheless, modern historians usually rank Arthur as a mediocre president, as well as the least memorable.
34. Martin Van Buren (1837-1841)
For his economic management, Van Buren received low rankings. The economy was booming when he came into office, but less than three months later, businesses and banks failed, and historians believe his policies only made the economy worse.
33. George W. Bush (2001-2009)
The lowest ranking for Bush is in international relations. The 2003 invasion of Iraq was his most controversial decision, based on the belief that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein posed a threat to the U.S. Historians surveyed by C-SPAN have reassessed his record in the years since Bush left office at the height of the economic crisis. He has moved up in the rankings, from 36th place in 2009 to 33rd place today.
32. Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881)
Historians were not impressed by the record of Hayes on equal justice. Hayes pledged to protect African-Americans’ rights in the South and withdrew federal troops, preferring “wise, honest, and peaceful local self-government” as he hoped.
31. Zachary Taylor (1849-1850)
For his failure to pursue equal justice, Taylor, a former military hero, received low rankings. He tried to skirt the issue when it came to the searing debate about slavery by holding that states could decide on slavery laws on their own.
30. Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893)
In economic and crisis management skills, Harrison received low ratings and failed to pursue equality for all Americans, but ranked a little higher in international relations. Harrison was trying to solve a high tariff issue, but prices were rising, and prosperity suffered.
29. James A. Garfield (1881)
Garfield, a former Civil War general and congressman from Ohio, is ranked lowest for his international relations skills. Just 200 days into his presidency, he was assassinated. On July 2, 1881, Garfield was shot at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station in Washington D.C. by Charles J. Guiteau, a disappointed and delusional office-seeker. The wound was not immediately fatal, but he died on September 19, 1881, from infections caused by his doctors.
28. Richard Nixon (1969-1974)
Nixon is rated extremely low for moral authority, which drags his high ratings in international relations down. His achievements included ending the draft, new anti-crime initiatives, and environmental protection policies. He negotiated arms control with Russia and, with communist China, made a diplomatic breakthrough. But the triumphs of Nixon were overshadowed by the Watergate scandal, which stemmed from a break-in during his reelection campaign at the Democratic National Committee’s offices. Nixon became the first U.S. President to resign on Aug. 9, 1974.
27. Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929)
Coolidge is poorly rated for crisis leadership and failing to work for all Americans for equal justice. He refused to use the country’s economic boom to help struggling farmers and workers in other flailing industries.
26. Jimmy Carter (1977-1981)
Carter’s leadership in the crisis ranked low but very high in the pursuit of equal justice. He is credited with creating a national energy policy to deal with shortages and bringing together the Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt. But his administration was battling economic stagnation and experiencing setbacks such as the hostage crisis in Iran.
25. Gerald Ford (1974-1977)
Ford ranked highest and lowest for his vision and ability to set an agenda for his moral authority. Assuming the presidency after Richard Nixon’s resignation, by granting Nixon a full pardon, Ford attempted to move the country past the political crisis. In 1976, Ford won the Republican nomination, but he lost the election.
24. William Howard Taft (1909-1913)
For his administrative skills and handling of international relations, historians rated Taft most highly. Taft favored politics over the law and went on to serve as the United States’ Chief Justice. In 1921, Taft was appointed chief justice by President Warren G. Harding, a position he served until a month before his death.
23. Grover Cleveland (1885-1889 and 1893-1897)
In C-SPAN’s 2000 survey, Cleveland dropped from 17th place to 23rd place in 2017. He was rated highest for public persuasion by historians and lowest for the pursuit of equal justice. Cleveland vetoed a bill that would have provided veterans, drought-stricken farmers, and people with disabilities with government money. He sent federal troops in to break a strike by railroad workers. He is the only president leaving the White House and returning for a second term thereafter.
22. Ulysses S. Grant (1869–1877)
Grant led the North to victory in the Civil War, but he received low marks for his administrative skills once he assumed the presidency. He is credited for having rebuilt the U.S. Navy that lagged behind other world power navies at the time, such as Great Britain and Spain.
21. John Quincy Adams (1825-1829)
For his moral authority, Adams ranked highest. He served and faced a contentious Congress during great division in the country but fought hard for civil liberties and unification.
20. George H.W. Bush (1989-1993)
Bush is highly rated by historians for his handling of international relations. Through the end of the Cold War, Bush guided the country and led a coalition to liberate Kuwait following Saddam Hussein’s invasion.
19. John Adams (1797-1801)
For his moral authority and handling of international relations, Adams ranked among the top. Adams never called for war despite growing hostilities with France and worked through negotiations to bring about a peace deal.
18. Andrew Jackson (1829-1837)
For his public persuasion skills, historians rate Jackson highly. He waged a political battle against the United States’ Second Bank, a private company that operated as virtually a monopoly sponsored by the government. Jackson’s views were largely supported by the American electorate and handed him a huge electoral victory for his second term.
17. James Madison (1809-1817)
For his moral authority, Madison ranked highest. In 1812, he declared war against Great Britain. Americans considered the war to be a success, leading to a period of rising nationalism. Madison is considered one of the United States’ most important Founding Fathers, and he has generally been ranked as an above-average president by historians.
16. William McKinley (1897-1901)
For his public persuasion skills, historians give McKinley high marks. He enacted history’s highest protective tariff, and America experienced an industrial boom under his leadership. Through the Spanish-American War, in which the United States conquered the Spanish fleet in Cuba, seized Manila in the Philippines, and occupied Puerto Rico, he also led the country. He was assassinated less than a year into his second term by an anarchist.
15. Bill Clinton (1993-2001)
In the C-SPAN historians’ survey between 2000 and 2017, Clinton’s ranking jumped from 21st to 15th. In public persuasion, his highest rating is. Since Franklin D. Roosevelt won a second term, Clinton’s first Baby Boomer president was the first Democrat. The first balanced budget in decades was proposed among other achievements, and a budget surplus was achieved. He faced impeachment over his liaison with a White House intern in his second term but was acquitted by the Senate.
14. James K. Polk (1845-1849)
For his vision and agenda-setting skills, Polk ranked highest. The U.S. acquired more than 800,000 square miles of western land under Polk’s leadership, extending its border to the Pacific Ocean. In 1849, Polk left office and returned to Tennessee, where he died three months after leaving the White House, true to his campaign pledge to serve only one term.
13. James Monroe (1817–1825)
For his skillful international relations, historians commended Monroe most. He established the Monroe Doctrine, which warned the Western Hemisphere not to be colonized or interfered with by European nations. Historians have generally ranked him as an above-average president.
12. Barack Obama (2009-2017)
Obama debuted on the C-SPAN list in 12th place. He was highly rated by presidential historians for pursuing equal justice and for his public persuasion skills. The Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, his signature domestic policy achievement, was unpopular with Republicans but extended health insurance coverage to 20 million more Americans. His administration helped guide the nation through the great recession and saved the auto industry in the United States. He was given weaker marks for his dealings with Congress and international relations by historians in the C-SPAN survey.
11. Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921)
For his vision and ability to set an agenda, Wilson ranked most highly. Through Congress, he moved much important legislation and convinced Congress in 1917 that America could no longer remain neutral in World War I.
10. Lyndon Johnson (1963-1969)
For his efforts in pursuing equal justice for all Americans, Johnson tops the charts. After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Johnson secured a landmark bill on civil rights. He urged the nation “to build a great society, a place where the meaning of man’s life matches the marvels of man’s labor,” which became his agenda, resulting in Medicare for the elderly, increased education assistance, and programs against poverty.
9. Ronald Reagan (1981-1989)
Since 2000, Regan’s ranking has steadily increased in the C-SPAN survey, largely due to more positive views of his economic management and crisis leadership. For public persuasion skills and setting the national agenda, he also scored extremely highly. Reagan was able to pass laws that accelerated economic growth and strengthened national defense by working with Congress, advancing his vision of “peace through strength” in the years leading up to the end of the Cold War.
8. John F. Kennedy (1961-1963)
Historians most credit Kennedy for his public persuasion skills and his vision. He also rates well for crisis management and handling international relations. He stood up to the Soviets, defused the Cuban Missile Crisis successfully, vowed to put a man on the moon, and pushed for civil rights progress. After barely 1,000 days in office, he was assassinated.
7. Thomas Jefferson (1801–1809)
For his vision and agenda-setting, Jefferson was ranked highest. He was the principal author of the Independence Declaration. During his presidency, he acquired the Louisiana Territory, vastly expanding its size, slashing the national debt by a third.
6. Harry Truman (1945-1953)
For his leadership, Truman gained praise from historians. After V-E Day, he ordered atomic bombs to be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki when Japan refused to surrender, finally ending World War II in the Pacific. Shortly thereafter, Truman watched the signing of the United Nations Charter, set up to preserve peace.
5. Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961)
Eisenhower jumped from 9th in the 2000 rankings to 5th in 2017, largely owing to an increasingly favorable view of his leadership in the crisis. The energies of Eisenhower were largely dedicated to easing the Cold War tensions. After years of war in Korea, he obtained a truce, desegregated the U.S. armed forces, and sent federal troops to enforce a court order in Little Rock, Arkansas, to desegregate public schools.
4. Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt (1901-1909)
For public persuasion, Theodore Roosevelt ranked highly. Just 42 when he became the youngest president in the history of the nation, he had the excitement and energy to convince Congress to pass progressive reforms and a strong foreign policy—exemplified by his motto, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” He oversaw the expansion of the national parks of America as an avid outdoorsman.
3. Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945)
For his public persuasion skills, historians praise Franklin D. Roosevelt, ranking him first in that category among all presidents. He was also ranked #1 in foreign relations handling. During the worst of the Great Depression, FDR assumed the presidency but assured the American people: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” He also led the U.S. through World War II’s perilous years.
2. George Washington (1789-1797)
Within his time, the nation’s first president ranked above all others for moral authority, economic management, and overall performance. Washington fought hard for the Constitution, feeling that it was not working well for the Articles of Confederation. Towards the end of his first term, he was disappointed to see the country become more politically divided and set a precedent by choosing to retire after his second.
1. Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865)
In the C-SPAN survey, Lincoln’s first-place position is due to high ratings across the board, but historians hold him in the highest esteem for crisis leadership. Through one of its most difficult periods, the Civil War led the nation and signed the Proclamation of Emancipation, freeing the slaves in 1863.