Rating the Presidents of the United States, 1789-2000: A Survey of Scholars in Political Science, History, and Law

By Lindgren, James; Calabresi, Steven G. | Constitutional Commentary, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Rating the Presidents of the United States, 1789-2000: A Survey of Scholars in Political Science, History, and Law


Lindgren, James, Calabresi, Steven G., Constitutional Commentary


The reputations of presidents rise and fall. As experts on the presidency gain more perspective, their rankings of some presidents, such as John Kennedy, have fallen, while their impressions of others, such as Harry Truman, have risen. Even some presidents long dead have taken reputational stumbles. For example, the presidencies of James Madison, John Adams, and John Quincy Adams are no longer as highly regarded as they used to be.

This study reports results from the latest survey of seventy-eight scholars on the presidency. Unlike most prior studies, this study surveyed experts on presidential history and politics from the fields of political science and law, as well as from history. Moreover, we explicitly balanced the group to be surveyed with approximately equal numbers of experts on the left and the right. Because political leanings can influence professional judgments, we think that these are the most politically unbiased estimates of reputation yet obtained for U.S. presidents.

To choose the scholars to be surveyed, we had three expert panels of two scholars in each field come up with a list of experts in their fields. The six scholars who consulted on the makeup of the sample were Akhil Reed Amar (Yale University), Alan Brinkley (Columbia University), Steven G. Calabresi (Northwestern University), James W. Ceaser (University of Virginia), Forrest McDonald (University of Alabama), and Stephen Skrowronek (Yale University).

We tried to choose approximately equal numbers of scholars who lean to the left and to the right. Our goal was to present the opinions of experts, controlling for political orientation. Another way to express this is that we sought to mirror what scholarly opinion might be on the counterfactual assumption that the academy was politically representative of the society in which we live and work. This study attempts to resolve the conflict between prior rankings of Presidents done mostly by liberal scholars or mostly by conservative scholars, (1) but not by both together.

As in prior studies, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt continue to be the most esteemed presidents. Also like other studies, Democratic presidents tend to be rated higher than Republican presidents (though insignificantly so), both overall and since 1857.

The scholarly experts we surveyed ranged from the merely distinguished to the great (and the near great). Our response rate was 59%--78 of 132 scholars responded after one follow-up. No demographic data were collected on the seventy-eight respondents--thirty historians, twenty-five political scientists, and twenty-three law professors. Where possible, we have quoted from the comments of scholars who responded to the survey.

Each scholar was asked to rate each president (2) on a standard social science five-point scale from well below average to highly superior (3) and to name the most overrated and underrated presidents. (4) Historian Paula Baker was one of many scholars who explained her criteria: "Highly superior and above average presidents made the most of what circumstances provided, and in a few cases, re-oriented their parties and public life."

The scholars we surveyed were supposed to rate them as presidents, but undoubtedly their other accomplishments sometimes affected the ratings. One respondent explicitly rejected this tendency, "Some of the low-ranking presidents [as he ranked them], such as John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, and William Howard Taft, were able men who contributed a great deal to the nation, but not as president."

This strange modern genre of presidential rankings was initiated in 1948 by Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., who repeated his study in 1962. (5) In 1996 his son, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., replicated the study once again. (6) Our study, conducted in October 2000, found remarkably similar results to the last Schlesinger study. The correlation between the ranks in the two studies is a staggeringly high .

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