Robert W. Merry writes at The American Conservative that the first three presidents on a list of “the greatest” presidents are easily agreed upon, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Franklin Roosevelt consistently rank at the top. Even these three are controversial in their own ways, but among historians, there’s little debate about their place in the rankings. After those three however, it seems that current fashion has a great impact on how past presidents are perceived. What other justification could there be for the big moves in the ranking of presidents like Jackson, Grant and even Reagan. Merry writes:
Another president who lost considerable ground (also five notches) was Andrew Jackson, who now resides at No. 18, a far cry from his earlier near-great status. Jackson is the victim of political correctness, which subsumes his considerable accomplishments under an abhorrence of his ownership of slaves and his brutal Indian-removal policies. Of course, Thomas Jefferson, ranked No. 7, also owned slaves, as did No. 2 Washington. And Indian removal was pretty much the prevailing U.S. policy long before and long after Jackson. Never mind; the ongoing assault on Jackson has seeped into academic thinking in a big way.
But the greatest presidential gainer was Ulysses Grant, who ranked at an abysmal No. 33 in C-SPAN’S 2000 poll but now resides at No. 22—right in the middle of all the presidents. This remarkable rise is attributable to major changes in thinking among academics about Reconstruction. For decades, historians viewed Grant as a puppet of the Senate’s so-called Radical Republicans, who imposed harsh Reconstruction policies upon the South and thus—in those historians’ view—exacerbated the nation’s sectional divide. But more recent scholarship has washed away this negative view of those Republican radicals and portrayed them instead as forerunners to the country’s later civil-rights activists devoted to equal justice for freed blacks. Grant’s embrace of those sentiments now elevates his status.
But for followers of this website and readers of our magazine, probably the most intriguing entry is that of Ronald Reagan, ranked in this latest C-SPAN survey at No. 9—conferring upon him “near great” status. While this is just two notches above Reagan’s 2000 C-SPAN ranking, it represents a huge leap from his standing among academics immediately after he left office. At that time Robert K. Murray of Penn State University and Tim H. Blessing of Alvernia College conducted an extensive poll encompassing 19 pages and 164 questions. Fully 18 percent of respondents considered Reagan “a flat failure,” while 44 percent ranked him “below average.” Only 1 percent considered him “great,” while 20 percent rated him as either “above average” or “near great.”
While Reagan presided over what the poll managers called “one of the longest and largest [economic] expansions in American history,” only 17 percent of respondents were willing to give Reagan any credit for the favorable economic numbers, while some 35 percent allowed that perhaps he deserved at least a little credit for them. Regarding the president’s tax-cut initiatives, a huge majority (89 percent) believed the country’s wealthier Americans already were undertaxed when Reagan took office (though the top rate was 70 percent).
“In short,” wrote Murray and Blessing, “it appears that the majority of historians do not believe that Reagan can claim credit for the economic advances of the 1980s, and a substantial number would redefine the meaning of the term ‘economic advance’ as applied to the Reagan years.”
These academics manifested equally negative views of Reagan’s actions on social and cultural issues. As Murray and Blessing summed up, “Reagan stands accused of racism, sexism, flawed judicial policies, underfunding of social and domestic programs, and creating and ignoring the homeless.” Further, 92 percent of respondents considered Reagan intellectually unqualified for the presidency and 54 percent considered him unqualified in terms of both intellect and experience (the latter despite two successful terms as governor of California).
Read more here.