Why Rank the Presidents?

Every other year or so, another news or polling organization comes out with a new ranking of the presidents of the United States, usually around President’s Day. And every time, it is about the same: Among historians and other scholars, George Washington, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln finish in the top three in some order, with Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Andrew Jackson, and Thomas Jefferson lurking just behind; among normal folks, Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy appear just behind that top three.

And honestly, most of the time this exercise of ranking the presidents is historical jiggery-pokery. The historian-surveys exhibit a veneer of objectivity and respectability, even though Democrats routinely outnumber Republicans on the top half of each ranking, and Republicans dominate the lowest tier. They further contribute to our deification of presidents and the trend of further concentration of power in the hands of the executive. And they obscure the many other forces that shape and direct our history, including many, many things outside the control of our presidents.

But still: they are kind of fun to do.

In that vein, I will be writing my own ranking of the presidents of the United States. This is not necessarily an historical endeavor: these kinds of lists contribute almost nothing to our understanding of history. Nor is this an attempt to convince people of my views. I am writing this purely because it is interesting to me.

I will be writing short essays on all 43 (Grover Cleveland was elected to two separate terms) presidents in the order that I rank them, from worst to first. A few important points to keep in mind: First, these posts are partly inspired by and will take a similar form to Joe Posnanski’s series of posts on the 100 greatest baseball players of all time — meaning, I won’t write about everything the particular president ever did, or even necessarily why I placed them where I placed them. Perhaps I will write only an interesting anecdote, something that illustrates the person’s character, or focus on one particular action he took.

Second, this list is not meant to be objective. Some presidents are indeed objectively great or objectively awful. But one cannot make a list such as this without his or her political philosophy affecting the placement of each president. Thus, it must be known at the outset: I am a conservative Republican (at least until Donald Trump wins the nomination); Edmund Burke and F.A. Hayek are my two favorite political philosophers; I have cast presidential votes for Ron Paul and Mitt Romney. This will inevitably affect the placing of each president on this list.

However, third, I think this list will be fair. My reasons for placing presidents where I place them will not be arbitrary, based merely on party affiliation. Democrats and liberals will be in the top half and Republicans and conservatives will be in the bottom half. Those who involved the United States in costly and unnecessary wars will reside in the bottom half of this list — that obviously includes Democrats and Republicans. Those who presided over peace and prosperity will reside in the top half of this list — again, including Democrats and Republicans. Those who worked on behalf of freedom for black people (predominantly Republicans in the 18th century) will be much higher on this list than they are in other rankings.

Fourth, as I put together my list, I found it interesting just how many mediocre presidents there have been. It was very hard to distinguish between many of them.

Fifth, the fact that one president is ranked higher than another does not necessarily mean that I would have voted for that president over the other. The rankings depend largely on circumstance. For example, Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency from 1901-1909 was fine; a Bull Moose administration after 1913 would have been downright terrifying.

Sixth, and lastly, this is meant to be fun and interesting. If you agree or disagree, let me know in the comments!

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