One blogger’s personal bridge to nowhere

The worst presidents are those not named Lincoln

C-SPAN’s “historians survey” ranking all 43 U.S. presidents should be self-evidently silly. But actually reading through the list provides some choice examples of the system’s arbitrariness. To wit:

  • Rutherford B. Hayes -- he'll be the worst soon enough.

    Rutherford B. Hayes -- he'll be the worst soon enough.

    The tenures of the three worst presidents on the list — Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson, and James Buchanan — all just happened to directly precede (Pierce and Buchanan) or succeed (Johnson) the man who just happens to rank as the survey’s best president (Lincoln). Notwithstanding the contributions of these feckless three to the unraveling of the Union and its flimsy reconstitution, respectively, it seems pretty clear what is going on here. When you put any candidates next to one whose “greatness” has acquired the status of legend, then of course they are going to come out looking shabby. The point is not to rehabilitate Andrew Johnson, or to denigrate Lincoln, just to stress that historical contingency plays a large part in shaping how we judge past presidents

  • Rutherford B. Hayes dropped seven spots since the survey’s last undertaking, in 2000. With the presidents who have moved up or down in the rankings, one must assume that some new historical evidence, improved perspective, or renewed calculations are responsible. And again, even granting Hayes’ particular faults — presiding over the official death of Reconstruction — what new evidence about Rutherford B. freaking Hayes could possibly have been unearthed in the past nine years to make him worse than seven more presidents?
  • And of course, I can only assume that George W. Bush will pull a Hayes, and a few 129 years down the road, historians will realize that the most unpopular president since they’ve been keeping track was in fact worse than the six presidents that he somehow ranks above.

UPDATE: All hope is not lost, Rutherford!  He’s apparently the most popular president in Paraguay (hat tip: Dom).

(image from flickr user Cliff1066 under a Creative Commons license)


February 17, 2009 - Posted by | History | , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. I think historians’ opinions of Radical Reconstruction have been steadily improving (especially in the North) for the last 50 or so years. In contrast, then, Hayes not only being the one to end it, but also the fact of his “election” being the reason it ended, makes him look worse.

    Comment by Tommy | February 18, 2009 | Reply

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