C-SPAN has released the results of its 2021 Presidential Historians Survey and the list makes for ugly reading. No one could reasonably argue with the ranking of Lincoln and Washington as first and second, respectively, but things quickly go off the rails after that. It’s probably unwise to spill too much ink over something so subjective and arbitrary, but I have to confess I’m something of a sucker for ranking lists. They’re awfully fun to argue over.
In the case of the presidents, lists like these can also give us an insight into what academic historians value in a chief executive. Or at least they should. But it’s hard to make heads or tails in this instance of precisely what rubric might have been used by the historians in question.
A progressive bias would lead us to expect the list to be weighted in favor of active and vigorous presidents who made a great deal of changes to the government using the apparatus of the executive branch. But how, then, to account for the ludicrously high ranking of John Fitzgerald Kennedy at No. 8, whose domestic record is all but nonexistent and whose foreign-policy accomplishments are largely myths of the popular imagination?
The presidents have clearly not been judged based on their attitudes toward race either, for although the nation’s only African-American president ranks highly at No. 10, Woodrow Wilson, the most appalling racist ever to hold the office, is only three places behind him. Warren G. Harding’s reversal of Wilson’s segregationist policies, meanwhile, land him no more than eight places from the bottom. This ranking alone discredits the list absolutely.
One could go on. Jackson is ranked above Coolidge and Bill Clinton above Ulysses S. Grant. John Adams manages to make the top half of the list in spite of the huge disappointment that was his presidential term. One can only assume that he was graded on a curve for all of the heroic acts he accomplished before taking up the office. In any case, the discernible presence of any governing metric of the list eludes me.