Eric Foner is the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University. His most recent book, “The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery,” was awarded the Bancroft Prize and the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2011.
Historians are not generally considered playful sorts. But they seem to enjoy one diversion — ranking the presidents. Ever since Arthur Schlesinger Sr. began this pastime in 1948 in a poll published in Life magazine, numerous such rankings have been issued. In “Where They Stand,” Robert W. Merry, a longtime Washington journalist and biographer of one of our less-prominent chief executives, James K. Polk, examines seven such surveys, beginning with Schlesinger’s, and what they tell us about how presidents succeed or fail.
Whether ranking the presidents contributes to historical knowledge may be doubted. However, as Merry points out, the polls display a remarkable consistency. Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Franklin D. Roosevelt are always at the top, usually followed, in some order, by Woodrow Wilson, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt. James Buchanan, Calvin Coolidge and Warren G. Harding cluster at the bottom. More interesting, perhaps, is how some reputations have changed over time. As historians began to sympathize with the effort to make citizens of the former slaves during post-Civil War Reconstruction, the rankings of Andrew Johnson, who steadfastly opposed racial equality, fell dramatically, while Ulysses S. Grant, who for a time tried to protect blacks’ voting rights, began a steady upward climb.
Conservatives have complained, with merit, that presidential rankings reflect a liberal bias among historians. Our profession tends to admire activist, reform-minded presidents in the mold of FDR. Indeed, when in 2005 the Wall Street Journal conducted an ostensibly ideologically balanced survey, there were marked differences in how Democratic and Republican historians viewed recent figures such as Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. The top rankings, however, did not change much. For that, one must turn to a recent list compiled by tea party-oriented libertarians, in which the main criterion for greatness was reducing government spending and the national debt. Harding came in first, Lincoln last....