Alex Massie

Ranking the Presidents

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Like Matt Yglesias and Jonathan Bernstein, I'm delighted that Ulysses S Grant's reputation is currently being revised and that, consequently, he's no longer thought of as one of the worst Presidents in American history. The latest Siena College poll of "presidential scholars, historians, and political scientists" puts Grant towards the middle of the pack in 26th place. Still too low but certainly a step in the right direction.

As is always the case in such matters the Rushmore Four plus FDR take the top five spots though this time, for some inexplicable reason, Teddy Roosevelt has supplanted Lincoln and come in second, behind FDR. These exercises are mainly entertainments for sure and are, again as is customary, biased in favour of those Presidents sensible enough to recall that their long-term reputations may well be boosted by starting a nice little war.

True, George W Bush, languishing in 39th place, is the great exception* to this but that's a matter of performance, not ambition. Certainly, admirable Presidents such as Grover Cleveland and Calvin Coolidge fail to receive their proper due while terrible types such as Kennedy and Woodrow Wilson are over-rated. Clearly, professional historians are still entranced by the myth of Camelot while the continuing success of Wilson (still eighth in the Siena poll!) is mystifying given that. even by the low standards of the genre, Wilson must be considered one of the most appalling, unpleasant characters to have ever occupied the White House.

Both men, it should be noted, performed strongly when this very blog surveyed readers on the vital question of the Most Over-Rated and Under-Rated Presidents two years ago. (Reagan won the former because of the Cult that has distorted his record; Eisenhower the latter even though these days it's hard to really consider him under-rated since he's always, like Truman and Polk, rated pretty highly.

So, with Grant in the ascendancy it's the likes of Cleveland, Coolidge and even poor old Warren Harding whose reputations remain under-valued. 

*Another exception is actually George HW Bush who is now also, I think, under-rated and due a reappraisal not least since he laid many of the foundations for the great prosperity of the 1990s while generally handling a tricky foreign policy hand pretty well.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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