Does our view of U.S. presidents change over time?

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We like to rank things.  The best movies, best golfers, best actresses, and so on. Presidents are no exception. Who were the best Presidents and who were the worst? And, as time passes, do some presidential reputations improve or worsen? To examine this issue, I looked at nineteen surveys performed by scholars over the past 70 years. These surveys were performed by a variety of people and institutions including historian Arthur Schlesinger, the Wall Street Journal, C-SPAN and the American Political Science Association.

There is unanimous agreement placing George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Teddy Roosevelt, and Thomas Jefferson at the top of the list. Franklin Pierce, Millard Fillmore, Warren Harding and James Buchanan are consistently at the bottom. And others, such as John Adams or William McKinley, have remained relatively constant as above average Presidents.

However, there are several Presidents whose reputations have either significantly improved or worsened over the 70-year period. We’ll look at several of these and speculate as to the causes for the change in status and analyze what this means.

Ulysses S. Grant

Until a Wall Street Journal survey in 2005, Grant was always rated as one of the worst Presidents in our history due to the many scandals during his administration. Examples include the ‘Black Friday Gold Panic’ in 1869 where some financiers attempted to corner the gold market using Grant’s brother-in-law to influence the President.  In another, known as the ‘Whiskey Ring’, corrupt officials profited by diverting tax money into their hands. Grant testified on behalf of the defendant in this case, which did not help his reputation. Rumors that Grant was a drunkard also hurt his standing.

Recent surveys now place Grant as an above-average President. The primary factor is his strong defense for African American civil rights in the South. When Grant became President in 1868, the South was resisting African American rights through laws, violence, and intimidation. During Grant’s administration laws were passed protecting civil rights. Grant signed legislation creating the Justice Department to enforce the Fourteenth (Citizenship) and Fifteenth (right-to-vote) Amendments and related federal laws in the South.

In 1871, the ‘Ku Klux Klan Act’ authorized the President to impose martial law. Grant sent federal troops to the Deep South, and the Klan's power collapsed. Elections in the South saw African Americans voting in record numbers during Grant’s presidency. His Postmaster General used his patronage powers to appoint many African American men and women as postal workers across the nation. In 1872, Frederick Douglass released a pamphlet entitled U.S. Grant and the Colored People where he praised Grant’s “Wise, Just, Practical and Effective Friendship.”

Woodrow Wilson

Initial surveys placed Wilson as one of the five best U.S. Presidents. His administration implemented several progressive reforms including the creation of the Federal Reserve System, implementation of the first income tax, and creation of the Federal Trade Commission to regulate business practices. In foreign affairs, he was an idealist, favoring self-determination, arms reduction, freedoms and a League of Nations to maintain peace. He based our entry into World War I on these ideals, known as the ‘Fourteen Points’. Wilson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.

More recently his reputation in surveys has taken a hit as his racist behavior has become publicized. During his administration, many Federal Departments were re-segregated. In 1919, numerous race riots across the U.S. resulted in hundreds of deaths in what would be later named the "Red Summer". Wilson declined to take any action to protect African Americans from these attacks.

Princeton University, where Wilson had served as President, is now facing protests to remove his name from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

Another criticism of the Wilson administration is the Sedition Act of 1918, making it illegal to criticize the U.S. government, a restriction of our civil rights. Finally, Wilson had a severe stroke with eighteen months left on his term, leaving him incapable of performing as President, but he refused to give up the office.

Ronald Reagan

President Reagan's surveys demonstrate the risk of polling shortly after completion of a President’s term. Surveys performed in the 1990’s placed him as a below average President. Certainly, his terms included controversies over tax policies, dealings with the Soviet Union, plans to shrink the role of government and the Iran-Contra scandal may have hurt his initial status.

However, more recent rankings place him in the top tier of U.S. Presidents. This is in part due to his domestic accomplishments in reducing taxes and increasing economic growth. But these positive ratings also reflect his role in ending the Cold War highlighted by his famous speech at the Berlin Wall in 1987 where he asked the Russian General Secretary Gorbachev to ‘Tear down this wall’. Two years later, it fell.

Conclusion

Were Barack Obama or George W. Bush good Presidents? Some may want to endorse one or the other as a good or failed President based mostly on partisan politics of the moment, but it is just too early to evaluate a President’s record when they have just left office. Policies that looked sound at first may not stand the test of time- or vice versa.

We should give these men credit for doing one of the hardest jobs in the world and using their judgment to do what they thought was best for the country at the time given the facts and circumstances as they understood them.

A final example: in 1976, Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon after Watergate because he felt it best for the country. The decision was extremely controversial at the time and may have cost him his re-election. In 2001, 25 years later, Ford won the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for that decision. Ted Kennedy, in presenting the award stated

"At a time of national turmoil, America was fortunate that it was Gerald Ford who took the helm of the storm-tossed ship of state. Unlike many of us at the time, President Ford recognized that the nation had to move forward and could not do so if there was a continuing effort to prosecute former President Nixon. So President Ford made a courageous decision, one that historians now say cost him his office, and he pardoned Richard Nixon. I was one of those who spoke out against his action then. But time has a way of clarifying past events, and now we see that President Ford was right.