Katie Nowak at The Troy Record:
In an outcome pollsters dub “Rushmore Plus One,” more than 200 scholars surveyed in the latest Siena College Research Institute Presidential Expert Poll have named Franklin Delano Roosevelt as America’s best president, followed by the four men whose legacies are already carved in stone.
FDR leads the pack for the fifth time since the survey’s 1982 inception, followed in order by Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. That top five has remained consistent throughout each of the five times the study has been performed, with only minor shuffling among their rankings.
“Despite decades of new research on former presidents and the accomplishments or lack thereof of the current chief executives, scholars display amazingly consistent results,” said Dr. Douglas Lonnstrom, a Siena statistics professor and one of the study’s directors.
Oh, Ta-Nehisi Coates is gonna like this…guess which president’s stock has improved the most since the last Siena College survey? That’s right, it’s Ulysses S. Grant.
Grant was close to the bottom in the first three Siena polls (1982, 1990, 1994), beating out just three presidents each time. In the 2002 edition, he moved up the 35th (of 42). Now, he’s escaped the ranks of the failed presidents entirely, rising to a respectable 26th. This matches what other surveys have been showing. The very first such study, conducted in 1948 by Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., had Grant second-to-last, and up until recently he was invariably a bottom-five choice. Now, with Siena joining the crowd, he’s a mid-pack president. Siena’s respondents docked him for his executive appointments and executive ability, and didn’t really give him strong marks anywhere, with it all averaging out to 26th place.
I have to admit that I probably know more about the historiography here than about the actual history of the Grant presidency. The historiography is straightforward: Southern-dominated history cast Grant as the scapegoat for pretty much everything. Grant was uncouth and brutal while Lee was civilized and tragic. Grant spent eight years drunk while crooks raided the treasury and crazies took revenge on the South. Something like that. Lincoln was sainted — that almost couldn’t be helped — but his death left the presidency in the hands of buffoons who allowed the greedy carpetbaggers and clown-like (at best) ex-slaves to punish the South even more over that tariff-dispute thing that tragically divided honorable Americans.
Of course, that was all nonsense, and it’s finally starting to recede, and with that Grant’s ratings are improving. I have only the vaguest of notions, however, about where he really should be in this sort of ranking. My geuss is that I’d probably wind up putting him somewhat higher, somewhere in the broad range of 13th-22nd, if I was doing a ranking right now, but I’d be stabbing at it..
What you’re seeing here is a growing appreciation of the central role the quest for racial justice deserves in American history, and the backlash against the Southern-dominated storyline that somehow cast Grant as the bad guy of the reconstruction era.
I think the other president primed for a historiographical re-evaluation is the little remembered Warren Harding. Arthur Schlesinger and the project of post-WWII Cold War liberalism casts a long shadow over popular understanding of a lot of American history, and that project almost requires an underrating of Harding and an overrating of his predecessor Woodrow Wilson. But the Harding administration is an example of the historically rare phenomenon of the civil liberties ratchet shifting in the direction of more freedom. Harding also began the process of raising the status of African-Americans from the low point we reached under Wilson—promoting, for example, an anti-lynching bill that passed the House of Representatives only to be filibustered to death in the Senate.
Like Matt Yglesias and Jonathan Bernstein, I’m delighted that Ulysses S Grant’s reputation is currently being revised and that, consequently, he’s no longer thought of as one of the worst Presidents in American history. The latest Siena College poll of “presidential scholars, historians, and political scientists” puts Grant towards the middle of the pack in 26th place. Still too low but certainly a step in the right direction.
As is always the case in such matters the Rushmore Four plus FDR take the top five spots though this time, for some inexplicable reason, Teddy Roosevelt has supplanted Lincoln and come in second, behind FDR. These exercises are mainly entertainments for sure and are, again as is customary, biased in favour of those Presidents sensible enough to recall that their long-term reputations may well be boosted by starting a nice little war.
True, George W Bush, languishing in 39th place, is the great exception* to this but that’s a matter of performance, not ambition. Certainly, admirable Presidents such as Grover Cleveland and Calvin Coolidge fail to receive their proper due while terrible types such as Kennedy and Woodrow Wilson are over-rated. Clearly, professional historians are still entranced by the myth of Camelot while the continuing success of Wilson (still eighth in the Siena poll!) is mystifying given that. even by the low standards of the genre, Wilson must be considered one of the most appalling, unpleasant characters to have ever occupied the White House.
Both men, it should be noted, performed strongly when this very blog surveyed readers on the vital question of the Most Over-Rated and Under-Rated Presidents two years ago. (Reagan won the former because of the Cult that has distorted his record; Eisenhower the latter even though these days it’s hard to really consider him under-rated since he’s always, like Truman and Polk, rated pretty highly.
Next for me, I think, is David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln, and then Jean Edward Smith’s Grant.