(Do you like historical rankings like this one? Then you’ll love my book! Maybe. I can’t make any promises. Anyway, the book ranks the 30 most influential figures in the history of Western civilization. Interesting, right? Buy it today!)
Months ago, I scheduled my ninth most influential figure in Western history post for today. That scheduling, however, was before I realized that today was Presidents’ Day! I don’t think the entry for the next person on the Top 30 list belongs on such a hallowed American holiday. Coincidentally, a day later this week coincides with the anniversary of one of #9’s most important publications. Therefore, I’m pushing back that entry to mid-week.
Still, my readers expect a Monday post! And a Monday post you shall have. Here is a Presidents’ Day presidential ranking.
Two quick notes on what you’re about to read:
- I’m not including any presidents from the last 50 years. I want to avoid recency bias, and I think it takes about 50 years until we have proper context for presidents. For the more recent presidents, people tend to compliment or criticize them because of their party and ideology, not more fundamental presidential characteristics. Therefore, the most recent president listed is Lyndon Johnson, who left office on January 20, 1969, and the earliest president not listed is Richard Nixon, who assumed the office on that day and proceeded to have two terms without any controversy. That leaves 35 presidents for today’s list. (Even though Lyndon Johnson is the 36th president, Grover Cleveland’s annoying non-concurrent terms made him the 22nd and 24th president, so Johnson was only the 35th person to hold the office.)
- I’m not going to have many details and examples. I don’t want to step on the toes of any future posts on presidents. Considering the content of this website, a more in depth look at these guys feels inevitable. Plus, it’s a holiday, right? You don’t want to spend a half hour reading a post. That’s what a work day is for.
To the list! Happy Presidents’ Day!
Tier 6: The Net Losses — They left America worse than they found it
35. James Buchanan (Almost always listed last, surviving extended family are probably actively rooting against Donald Trump)
34. Andrew Johnson
33. Franklin Pierce (The terms of Pierce, Buchanan, and Johnson surrounded Lincoln’s tenure. Does that mean we’re comparing them to him unfairly, or that Lincoln is all the more incredible for being great in a difficult time to be great? I lean toward the latter.)
32. Warren G. Harding (Top 32? That’s a win for him.)
31. Herbert Hoover
30. James Madison (Great job drafting much of our Constitution two decades earlier, but he’s our most overrated president. The capital literally burned!)
Tier 5: The Neutrals — With a single relatively ineffective term or less, they didn’t have time to screw things up too much, and some even did a bit of good.
29. William Henry Harrison (His one-month in office is the shortest presidential tenure.)
28. Millard Fillmore (finished Taylor’s term)
27. Zachary Taylor (term was finished by Fillmore)
26. James Garfield (second shortest tenure — less than seven months)
25. Chester Alan Arthur (finished Garfield’s term)
24. Benjamin Harrison
23. Martin Van Buren
22. Rutherford B. Hayes (Speaking further to the point made next to Pierce, we’ve now had 14 presidents listed, and all but three came between 1837 and 1893. That’s a rough stretch.)
21. William Howard Taft
Tier 4: The Divisive Two-Termers — They had plenty of time to do some good… and some not so good.
20. Ulysses S. Grant
19. Grover Cleveland (demerits for non-concurrent terms that have thrown off our counting of presidents)
18. Andrew Jackson (the most divisive nineteenth century president)
17. Woodrow Wilson (the most divisive of any pre-Nixon twentieth century president)
Tier 3: The Net Gains — On balance, I like what they did.
16. John Quincy Adams (Like Jefferson and Madison, his strong reputation mostly comes from his pre-president days.)
15. John Tyler (The first VP to ascend to the office in the middle of a term, he handled it well and set important precedents.)
14. Calvin Coolidge (“Silent Cal” sounds really nice right about now)
13. William McKinley
12. Lyndon B. Johnson
11. John Adams (mea culpa: ridiculous amount of bias here. I love the guy.)
Tier 2: The Top 10 — Some Excellent Presidents
10. John F. Kennedy (man I wish he had more time)
9. James Monroe (besides Washington, never was the country more united behind a president)
8. Thomas Jefferson (not just an excellent president, but the 24th most influential figure in Western history)
7. James K. Polk (Our greatest single-term president, he said he needed just four years to accomplish his goals and then he left, just like he promised. I’ve predicted Joe Biden’s emulates this approach in his campaign.)
6. Dwight D. Eisenhower
5. Harry S Truman
Tier 1: The Mount Rushmore of Presidents — Three of Whom are on the Actual Mount Rushmore
4. Theodore Roosevelt
3. Franklin Delano Roosevelt
2. George Washington (the 14th most influential figure in Western history!)
1. Abraham Lincoln (so great that both liberals and Republicans embrace him as one of their own)
(And don’t forget about my book. Buy it today!)
13 thoughts on “PPFA’s Presidents’ Day Presidents Ranking”
This post has had me thinking all day and frankly I love it. I don’t want to debate you on the intricacies of each position (because what does it matter if Benjamin Harrison is #24 or #22). Instead I’ll just give you my top 9. Originally I was going to do 10, but I found after my nine each President had something strong against him that made it hard to distinguish them.
1. Lincoln- the book Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin is the only book I’ve cried to while reading. He is a god like figure in American history
2. Teddy Roosevelt- I don’t think the creation of the Panama Canal is given enough credit as an important event in American history. Also
3. George Washington- even though he wasn’t critical in writing the constitution, his presidency set in stone the constitution
4. Dwight Eisenhower- maybe some personal bias as he is my favorite president to read about, I don’t think he gets nearly enough credit for his presidency and really took America into the modern world
5. James Polk- similar thoughts to your post. I believe there is an essay floating around comparing James Polk’s policies as the basis for the invasion of Iraq. Only an essay someone who comments on history/political blogs would write.
6. Harry Truman- Ended WW2, Marshall Plan, created the UN, NATO, Berlin airlift, maybe the most influential foreign policy presidency
7. FDR- This is my Skip Baylesss hot take. FDR is definitely higher in terms of most influential, but is he as great as everyone things he is? The New Deal programs are lasting and changed America, but its goal was to help end the Depression. There is strong argument to be made that the World War II was the actual end of the Depression by creating a market need for mass industrialization. If that is the case what are the effects of the New Deal programs in ending of the Depression. Foreign Policy wise, Roosevelt’s isolationism did not deter the rise of Nazism and the two most import events of World War II were led/decided on by #4 and #6 of my list. This argument makes it sound like I don’t think highly of FDR. Clearly, he is still a great President.
8. Thomas Jefferson- I originally had him below Monroe, but I think it’s hard to say the Louisiana Purchase is less influential than the Monroe Doctrine. It doubled the size the US for the same price as a middle reliever contract now.
9. James Monroe- The Monroe Doctrine was pretty much official US Doctrine until 2013. That’s remarkable. One could argue though, John Quincy Adams should get the credit since he is the primary author.
Now another list I love to think about are the hardest decisions a president had to make over the course of their presidency. This doesn’t mean they made the correct choice, just I am fascinating with wanting to learn about what it would be like to be in the room as decision were made.
1. Lincoln- Civil War, duh. Goes to show just how good of a president he was
2. JFK- Cuban Missile Crisis, quite possibly the closest the World’s ever coming to ending
3. Tie. FDR/Truman- Both were fighting off Nazi Germany and trying to save Western Cavillation as we know it
4. Bush- 9/11 and the Economic collapse. Will we ever know what happened if the banks collapsed?
Honorable Mention: Adams (Washington was anointed president. Adams was the first one people how had to show people that the presidency could survive after him.
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Incredible that our top nines host the same presidents. Nice ranking!
To your second fascinating list I’d have to include Madison fleeing Washington with the British closing in, Wilson grappling with the decision on whether to join the Great War, and Adams weighing the merits of war with France with his own party and guaranteed re-election begging for it while the stability of the young nation and his conscience tipped the other way.
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I like the idea of not ranking Presidents that have served too recently, but I think 50 years is a bit much for a timeframe. I think excluding the last two previous Presidents and the incumbent is enough. I also believe that William Henry Harrison and James Garfield shouldn’t be ranked, as they didn’t serve long enough. I am doing a full ranking on my blog, but I will give the top 10 here. No explanation,that will be on the blog.
9) Bush the elder, Monroe & Tyler are tied
Just click on my name to get to my blog.
I just checked out your site, and I admire the time you’ve put into each of the entries. Well done!
We of course have disagreements. Teddy so low jumps out to me! However, based on your entry, I see how little you care for his approach to getting things done. To each their own.
I look forward to your top 21!
Thanks for the imput.
Teddy Roosevelt’s low ranking comes down to constitutionality and precedent setting. The idea that he could do what he wants for the greater good leads to a slippery slope. I’m reminded of Nixon telling Frost “when the President does it, it’s not illegal.”
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