Worst Presidents: Introduction

Who are the worst presidents?

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Credit, or blame, for the first scholarly ranking of the presidents usually goes to Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr., who conducted a poll for Life magazine in 1948. He asked 55 specialists in American history to rate the presidents as great, near great, average, below average, or failure. Abraham Lincoln topped the list, followed by George Washington and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Claiming the cellar of that list were Warren G. Harding and, in ascending order, Ulysses S. Grant, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Calvin Coolidge, John Tyler, Benjamin Harrison, and Herbert Hoover.

Interpreting the results, Schlesinger concluded that what weighed most heavily in determining the best presidents was whether they "took the side of progressivism and reform, as understood in their day." Though Schlesinger did not say so, the quality that characterized most of the failed presidencies, reflected in the choice of so many ineffectual pre-Civil War presidents and Hoover, was passivity or inaction in the face of great historical challenges (or, in the cases of Grant and Harding, in the face of corruptionand ineptitude inside their own administrations). The value placed on executive energy could be said to reflect a liberal bias, but it also reveals the influence of a less strictly partisan ideal of the presidency as a strong, activist branch of government. "If there is a common denominator in presidential assessments," argues Princeton's Greenstein, "it is a bias toward activism, unless the activism is viewed as misplaced, as in the instances of Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam and Nixon and Watergate."

To test whether that or any other generalizations about presidential performances, particularly failed performances, hold up, U.S. News averaged the results of five major and relatively recent presidential polls to make its own gallery of the 10 worst presidents—actually 11, because of a tie at ninth place.