Posted by: David Offutt | December 4, 2008

Presidential Greatness: David Offutt’s Grading of the Presidents

The first time I did this was in 1973. I wanted my honors U.S. history students to know where I stood in comparison to the Schlesinger Poll of 1962. We have now had seven more presidents since then, and I detect a lot of similarities between then and now. Hence, I thought it would be fun to do it again and bring my list up to date. The biggest disappointment has been that I had said when Nixon left office we could never have a worse president than he. I was wrong. However, I finally solved my dilemma over what to do about LBJ: I listed him twice, and I think I got it right this time.

Our three best presidents (whom I call The Great Triumvirate) and our three worst presidents (whom I call The Diabolical Trio) all pretty much secured their rankings during their first two years in office. They confirmed their positions during the rest of their time in office. Hence, I will wait until  January 2011 to tentatively”pencil in” Barack Obama somewhere on the list .

Enjoy.

Grading the Presidents 2005

A+’s

The Great Triumvirate in Chronological Order

1. George Washington
2. Abraham Lincoln
3. Franklin D. Roosevelt

A’s

4. Thomas Jefferson
5. Theodore Roosevelt
6. Lyndon Baines Johnson (without Vietnam)

B’s

7. Harry Truman
8. Woodrow Wilson
9. Andrew Jackson
10. James K. Polk
11. John F. Kennedy
12. William Clinton
13. Jimmy Carter

C’s

14. Dwight D. Eisenhower
15. Grover Cleveland
16. James Madison
17, William McKinley
18. James Monroe
19. John Adams
20. Rutherford B. Hayes
21. William Howard Taft
22. Chester A. Arthur
23. George H. W. Bush
24. John Quincy Adams
25. John Tyler
26. Gerald Ford
27. Martin Van Buren
28. Benjamin Harrison

D’s

29. Andrew Johnson
30. Millard Fillmore
31. Zachary Taylor
32. Franklin Pierce
33. Calvin Coolidge
34. James Buchanan

F’s

35. Lyndon Baines Johnson (with Vietnam)
36. Ulysses S. Grant
37. Warren G. Harding
38. Herbert Hoover

F-’s

The Diabolical Trio in Descending Order
39. Richard Nixon
40. Ronald Reagan
41. George W. Bush

David Offutt’s Presidential Rankings 1973

Great

1. Abraham Lincoln
2. George Washington
3. Franklin D. Roosevelt
4. Thomas Jefferson
5. Woodrow Wilson

Near Great

6. Harry Truman
7. John F. Kennedy
8. Andrew Jackson
9.  Theodore Roosevelt and
Lyndon Baines Johnson
10. James K. Polk

Average

11. Grover Cleveland
12. William McKinley
13. William Howard Taft
14. John Adams
15. Rutherford B. Hayes
16. James Monroe
17. Chester A. Arthur
18. Dwight D. Eisenhower
19. James Madison
20. John Quincy Adams
21. Martin Van Buren
22. John Tyler
23. Benjamin Harrison

Below Average

24. Andrew Johnson
25. Herbert Hoover
26. Millard Fillmore
27. Zachary Taylor
28. Franklin Pierce

Bad

29. James Buchanan
30. Ulysses S. Grant
31. Warren G. Harding
32. Calvin Coolidge
33. Richard Nixon

Note: Two presidents died shortly after entering office and are not included in any of the lists:
William Henry Harrison & James A. Garfield

1962 Schlesinger Poll of 75 Historians

Great

1. Abraham Lincoln
2. George Washington
3. Franklin D. Roosevelt
4. Woodrow Wilson
5. Thomas Jefferson

Near Great

6. Andrew Jackson
7. Theodore Roosevelt
8. James K. Polk and
Harry Truman
9. John Adams
10. Grover Cleveland

Average

11. James Madison
12. John Quincy Adams
13. Rutherford B. Hayes
14. William McKinley
15. William Howard Taft
16. Martin Van Buren
17. James Monroe
18. Herbert Hoover
19. Benjamin Harrison
20. Chester A. Arthur and
Dwight D. Eisenhower
21. Andrew Johnson

Below Average

22. Zachary Taylor
23. John Tyler
24. Millard Fillmore
25. Calvin Coolidge
26. Franklin Pierce
27. James Buchanan
Failure

28. Ulysses S. Grant
29. Warren G. Harding

Note: Two presidents died shortly after entering office and are not included in any of the lists:
William Henry Harrison & James A. Garfield

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Responses

  1. David, I’m curious why you bumped up George Washington ?

    What’s so great about Harry Truman ? He needlessly nuked Japanese civilians, got us into the pointless Korean War based on the bogus domino theory, and recognized the Zionists in Palestine. Instead of helping the Vietnamese establish independence, Truman took the side of colonialism.

    I do admire Truman’s gumption, integrating the armed services (by executive order, instead of passing the buck to Congress), and firing McArthur. Truman definitely had a spine. However, he was a moderate and a warmonger, not a progressive like FDR.

    I’m not questioning the numerical ranking, merely suggesting that the grade distribution doesn’t necessarily fit a bell curve. I’ll go along with A’s for the top 6, but not so sure the bunch in the middle really deserves B’s and C’s — that suggests competence, which I question.

    Personally, I have a soft spot for Jimmy Carter. He got blamed for the economy — which had more to do with fallout from Vietnam War — and for the Iran mess — which had started back in the 50’s when Nixon helped install the Shah, and which Reagan/Bush made worse by secretly negotiating to delay the release of hostages.

    But Jimmy did a lot of things right, too. First, he is a sincerely good person, unlike the string of sociopaths we’ve had in recent history. He put teeth into OSHA, created lots of Wilderness, lowered the deficit, and tapped Volker to run the Fed. Jimmy successfully negotiated a tentative deal to release the Iran hostages merely by releasing frozen Iranian bank accounts, only to have the rug pulled out when Reagan/Bush agreed in secret negotiations to give the Iranians weapons if they’d wait until the inauguration to release the hostages. Jimmy also negotiated a lasting peace between Israel and Egypt.

    Glad you are still interested in American History !

  2. Dan,
    I didn’t bump Washington up. I merely listed the three greatest presidents in chronological order.

    I agree with you on Harry Truman, but much of our reservations about him is caused by 20/20 hindsight. We can’t remove him from the time in which he was in office. It was a Republican era with the rise of Nixon, the House Un-American Activities Committee, McCarthyism, et al. Yes, he made regrettable compromises, but he held the New Deal together. When the Republicans got Ike into the White House, Ike refused to repeal the New Deal and thwarted their plans.

    I’m glad someone besides me gives Carter the credit he deserves. Please check out my “The Rise of the Nixonians (Part 2): The Iran-Contra Scandals” located on my “presidents” category.


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