In honor of Presidents Day, we take a look at the small group of presidents consistently ranked among the best, and ask your opinion in this online vote.
Historians have been ranking presidents on job performance since the late 1940s, when Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr. polled 55 historians in a survey for Life magazine. He followed with a similar poll in 1962. The survey sparked a lot of talk, and criticism, as some experts didn’t find much value in it. Stanford historian Thomas A. Bailey claimed the Schlesinger polls included a bias toward Democrats, liberals and anyone with a connection to Harvard.
But over the years, various presidential rankings have focused on a small set of presidents who always appear at the top of these surveys of historians. In 2000, a survey from The Wall Street Journal and the Federalist Society ranked Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Franklin Delano Roosevelt as “great” presidents.
A study of historian rankings from Meena Bose at the United States Military Academy in 2003 showed little variation from different historian surveys. Bose said after a symposium of experts looked at all the studies, there was a consensus that the actual exercise of rankings had “limited value,” but the exercise was useful because it provoked debates about qualities make a president a great leader.
Also, surveys about presidential greatness taken by the general public showed different results, with a preference to rank more-recent presidents higher. Ronald Reagan, in particular, has polled well in recent surveys. In 1999, Reagan was listed as the fifth-best president ever in a popular poll, but 11th in a poll of historians. In recent years, Reagan was listed as one of the top 10 presidents in four out of five historian surveys.
Living presidents also present a challenge to historians, and tend to be ranked higher by historians as time goes by. But for the purpose of our informal polling, here are the five presidents who historians have ranked among the top five presidents in surveys since 2000.
George Washington. The 1st president was the only person the Founding Fathers even considered for the job.
Thomas Jefferson. The 3rd President was a driving force behind the Revolution and an intellectual force as the Constitution came to be debated and ratified.
Abraham Lincoln. The 16th president served little more than four years in office, but accomplished much.
Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Democrat served for 12 years as the only president elected to four terms, in a period that started in the Great Depression and ended with World War II nearly concluded.
Theodore Roosevelt. The Republican, a distant cousin of FDR, led considerable reforms at the start of the 20th century and redefined the president’s role.
You can vote here or click this link if you can’t see the poll: https://polldaddy.com/poll/7802133/
And as a bonus poll, which president do you think historians should rank higher as time goes on: Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan? You can click on this link to take our bonus survey: http://poll.fm/4n86d
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