The Greatest Presidents

Background

The Fall 1985 issue of Presidential Studies Quarterly, published by the Center for the Study of the Presidency, had an article called, "Rating Presidents and Diplomats in Chief." In this article, Presidents are assessed.

In 1948, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr. polled 55 prominent scholars in American history and government, and again in 1962 he asked 75 to rank Presidents within five categories - as great, near great, average, below average and failure. Another poll, conducted among nearly 850 members of the United States Historical Society in 1977, asked respondents to name the 10 greatest Presidents. There were 3 other group polls in 1970, 1981, and 1982, and 12 more individual assessments discussed in this article. So, out of 18 lists, the results were:

Washington, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt were on all 18 lists. Wilson and Jefferson were on 17 lists. Then Truman on 9, Polk on 7, John Adams on 6, Grover Cleveland on 5 and Kennedy on 2.

In 1956, the popular poll results were: Franklin Roosevelt, Lincoln, Washington, Eisenhower, Truman, Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt and Jefferson.

In 1976, popular poll results were: Kennedy, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Truman, Washington, Eisenhower, Theodore Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Jefferson, Wilson and Nixon.

No where in this article were the election results, or voters opinions, considered.

The Electoral College

Because Electoral College vote is the only measure by which all Presidents can be compared, we devised a formula. The cumulative percentage of Electoral votes received by a President, divided by the number of elections in which he received any Electoral votes.

The Second Term

Not surprisingly, the highest percentage of Electoral votes were won by Presidents winning re-election: Roosevelt's second term - 98.49%; Monroe's second term - 98.3%; Washington's second term - 97.77%; Reagan's second term - 97.58%; Nixon's second term - 96.65%; Washington's first term - 94.52%; and Jefferson's second term - 92.05%. Then Reagan's first term, Lincoln's second term, and so on.

Conclusion, our greatest Presidents are the two term Presidents. There have been 16 two term Presidents, 22 one term Presidents, 5 Presidents who were never elected, and two people who were elected president but were never allowed to take office (Tilden and Gore). [For purposes of this analysis, which is based on voters choices, George W. Bush is a one term president, because he was only elected to one term.  He is the only two term president to have less than a 50% electoral vote average, less than 17 of the other 21 one term presidents.  According to voters, George W. Bush belongs at number 34 of the 43 presidents so far.]

The Greatest Presidents

Using average percentage of Electoral vote, the list of the United States' greatest Presidents generally agrees with historians. But the voters gave very high marks to two, James Monroe and Ulysses Grant, who don't appear on any expert list or popular poll.

The list of Presidents and their average percentage ratings are:

Rank

President

Percent

1.

George Washington

96.14%

2.

James Monroe

90.55%

3.

Franklin Roosevelt

88.32%

4.

Dwight Eisenhower

84.65%

5.

Ulysses S. Grant

75.40%

6.

Bill Clinton

69.65%

7.

8.

Woodrow Wilson

Barack Hussein Obama

67.04%

65.03%

9.

Thomas Jefferson

64.71%

10.

Richard Nixon

64.46%

11.

Abraham Lincoln (75.0%)*

64.18%

12.

James Madison

64.02%

13.

Ronald Reagan (94.23%)**

63.44%

14.

William McKinley

62.97%

15.

Andrew Jackson

60.72%

16.

Grover Cleveland

58.50%

One Term Presidents

17.

Lyndon Johnson

90.33%

18.

Franklin Pierce

85.81%

19.

William H. Harrison

79.59%

20.

Warren Harding

76.08%

21.

Calvin Coolidge

71.94%

22.

Theodore Roosevelt

70.59%

23.

William Howard Taft

66.46%

24.

James Polk

61.82%

25.

James Buchanan

58.78%

26.

James Garfield

57.99%

27.

Martin Van Buren

57.82%

28.

Harry S. Truman

57.06%

29.

John F. Kennedy

56.42%

30.

Zachary Taylor

56.21%

31.

Jimmy Carter

55.2%

32.

 

 

George H. W. Bush

Albert J. Gore, Jr. (never took office)

 

55.14%

54.09%

33.

John Adams

51.45%

              Samuel J. Tilden (never took office)              50.90 %


34.

George W. Bush

49.43%

 

 

35.

 

36.

 

 

Rutherford B. Hayes

 

Herbert Hoover

                 

 

49.05%

 

48.06%

37.

Benjamin Harrison

                          45.37%

38.

John Q. Adams

                            15.79%

Never Elected Presidents

39.

Gerald Ford

                            44.6%, H

40.

John Tyler

                            H,S,G,VP

41.

Andrew Johnson

                            H,S,G,VP

42.

Millard Fillmore

                            H,VP

43.

Chester A. Arthur

                            VP

Elected Offices: H= U.S. House, S= U.S. Senate, G=Governor, VP=Vice-President

* Abraham Lincoln actually had 75.0%, but that is only because the southern states that seceded from the union did not vote in the 1864 election. Lincoln's 64.18% is based on the number of electoral votes including the South where he would have lost.

** Reagan's two term total of 94.23% from his two successful elections would make him number 2 in the Presidential listings. However, he received 1 electoral vote in 1976 from a faithless Ford elector. So, the 1980 and 1984 elections were more like Roosevelt's second and third campaigns. Reagan should have been nominated in 1976.

What Washington, Eisenhower and Grant have in common.

Does this list make sense? Is Grant really one of our greatest Presidents, when his administration was ridden with scandal?

Yes. Washington, Eisenhower and Grant all have three things in common. They were the commanding Generals in the three indisputably "good" wars the United States ever fought: the War for Independence, the Civil War, and World War II.

Then, they presided over two peacetime economic boom terms.

Also, according to Geoffrey Perret's biography of Ulysses S. Grant, Grant virtually invented the modern army organization.

Peace and Prosperity, the two winning issues in politics

Why is Lincoln so low on the totem pole? Because he got a lot of people killed. Lincoln was undoubtedly a great human being, a great person; but no one who leads his country into a carnage like the Civil War, which left scars that still endure, can be considered a great President. A great President would have prevented the war. Of course, there was probably no one up to the task.

And why is Monroe so high on the list? His name is still attached to our foreign policy in Central and South America - the Monroe Doctrine.

And why is Jackson so low?  He committed genocide against the Cherokee Indians.

Proof That This Election Analysis has Merit

Does this ranking of the Presidents ring true? Some might argue that Lincoln is too low, or Clinton is too high. Remember, these 43 men all reached the top of their profession, so they are all huge successes by any normal standard.

But the proof that this analysis of presidential greatness is correct lies in the Winternitz postulate. Washington and Monroe, the two greatest presidents, bracket the 35 years when the United States was successfully launched as a nation.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Dwight David Eisenhower bracket the 28 years during which the United States emerged as a world superpower. They were all peacetime presidents for their first two terms. It was only the impact of World War II that enabled FDR to disrupt the historical pattern of presidential elections by winning a third and fourth term.

On the other end of the scale, look at the 5 presidents who were never elected: John Tyler, Andrew Johnson, Millard Fillmore, Chester A. Arthur and Gerald Ford. What a collection of non-entities, especially compared with Washington, Monroe, FDR and Ike. The ranking of those never elected is based on their performance with the voters prior to becoming president. (A special note of thanks is due to Ivan Trotsky of Takoma Park, Maryland; for his assistance in ranking the non-elected presidents.)

This proves that being elected President is the source of much of the office's power. Electoral votes are the most important measure, although popular vote is a secondary standard. When selecting the most powerful person in the world, having two or more standards by which to judge is a safeguard.  So, George W. Bush, who lost the 2000 election but was awarded the office by clerical error, was responsible for the United States being attacked from abroad for the first time since 1812, launched two disastrous wars, and plunged the world into the worst economic crisis in seventy years.  These events followed directly from the Supreme Court picking the loser in the presidential race. The Electoral College was not the problem in the 2000 election, it was the solution; but Al Gore was too much of a coward, or an idiot, to fight for his victory with all the tools available.

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Contact: Joshua Leinsdorf