Our Presidential Heroes

Society reveals itself in whom it reveres.

Every age has its own heroes and villains, and thus it is no surprise that the reputations of American presidents rise and fall over time. With a new president taking office in January, the Federalist Society decided the time was ripe to join with the Wall Street Journal to do a new survey of presidential scholars to rank the 39 presidents who have served more than a few months in office. In October of this year, we mailed out ballots to 132 prominent professors of History, Law, and Political Science, 78 of whom responded by rating the presidents from George Washington through Bill Clinton. The end result, in our opinion, is the most politically balanced ranking of U.S. presidents to date.

Our primary reason for undertaking a new survey was to get a fairer and more balanced assessment than had been achieved by past presidential surveys. Unlike most prior studies, which had surveyed primarily either liberals or conservatives but not both, our new study surveyed a balanced panel of experts. Toward that end, we asked a panel of two historians, two law professors, and two political scientists to select a balanced group of prominent scholars to be surveyed. The six scholars who consulted on the makeup of the pool were Akhil Reed Amar (Yale University), Alan Brinkley (Columbia University), Steven G. Calabresi (Northwestern University), James W. Ceaser (University of Virginia), Forrest McDonald (University of Alabama), and Stephen Skrowronek (Yale University). We sought to mirror what scholarly opinion might be on the counterfactual assumption that the academy was politically representative of the society in which we live and work.

The modern genre of presidential rankings was initiated in 1948 by Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. In 1996 his son Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. replicated the study for the New York Times Magazine. Our study, conducted in October 2000, found remarkably similar results to the last Schlesinger study. The correlation between ranks in the two studies is a staggeringly high .94. The main difference between the two studies is that Ronald Reagan ranks eighth in our study, while he ranked 25th (out of 39 Presidents) in Schlesinger’s 1996 study.

Besides political balance, our study has some possible advantages over Schlesinger’s. Like Schlesinger, we surveyed 30 historians, but in place of his two politicians (Mario Cuomo and former Senator Paul Simon), we also surveyed 25 political scientists and 23 law professors with expertise in constitutional law or on the presidency. While Schlesinger surveyed one woman and no ethnic minorities, about 15% of our respondents were women or minorities, a substantial percentage only by comparison.

Each professor surveyed was asked to rank the presidents on a standard five point social science scale as: highly superior, above average, average, below average, or well below average. We then assigned one to five points for each rank. To produce the accompanying table, we used a version of Schlesinger’s six category scale of great: near great, above average, average, below average, and failure.

Overall, Democratic presidents are ranked slightly, but insignificantly, higher than Republican presidents. As in most prior studies, the three presidents ranked as “great” are George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt. Ronald Reagan joins the group of eight “near great” presidents, which also includes Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, Andrew Jackson, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, James Polk, and Woodrow Wilson.

Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush both fall into the “average” category, while John Kennedy’s reputation has fallen to the bottom of the “above average” category. Richard Nixon and Herbert Hoover rank “below average,” and we characterized Andrew Johnson, Franklin Pierce, Warren Harding, and James Buchanan as “failures.”

Ronald Reagan was named as the most “underrated” president, as well as the second most “overrated” president, suggesting the lack of academic consensus about Reagan’s legacy. Even more variable in their rankings in this study are Bill Clinton and Woodrow Wilson. John Kennedy is the most “Overrated” president by a very large margin.

Our study found that length of term in office is an important determinant of reputation. Two-term presidents are today ranked much higher than one-term presidents. This is somewhat in conflict with the conventional wisdom that second terms are always a failure, as well as with the idea that there is little correlation between electoral success and success in office. According to the study, age at inauguration has no effect on measured success in office.

This study of presidential rankings is important because it suggests that Ronald Reagan has been seriously underrated in past studies, while for presidents like John Kennedy, ours is only the most recent study to have somewhat downgraded his reputation. It is also striking that in the wake of his impeachment trial Bill Clinton is the lowest ranked two-term president other than Ulysses S. Grant. Who a societies’ heroes are tells us a great deal about that society. For that reason, if for no other, it is important that we give Ronald Reagan his due. As for Bill Clinton, our exit polling suggests that it is still too early to call the race.

Messrs. Lindgren and Calabresi are professors of law at Northwestern University. Mr. Calabresi is the National Co-Chairman of the Federalist Society.

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