Historians Ranked Who as the Greatest U. S. President?

by Burt on July 7, 2010

No surprise. The Siena College presidential poll–a ranking of 44 presidents by 200 historians–put Franklin Roosevelt in first place. In other words, the man who, during his first two terms, gave us nonstop double digit unemployment–and 20 percent unemployment toward the end of his second term, is ranked ahead of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and all other American presidents.

And that may not be the worst indiscretion. These historians also ranked Barack Obama ahead of Ronald Reagan. In other words, if you start your presidency with 8 percent unemployment and run it to 10 percent (all the while going further in debt by more than $1,000,000,000,000) you are greater than the president who sharply reduced unemployment and inflation during his first term and then ended the Cold War in his second term.

Some people are dismayed by our historians’ peculiar judging standards. And it’s true that such wildly indefensible rankings are outrageous. But they help inform us that most historians can’t be trusted to make sound judgments about the past. That is useful to know, as parents prepare their 18 year olds to go off to college and be tutored by FDR loyalists. As a fellow PhD in history, I have studied under some of these historians, and have even taught along side them before I came to Hillsdale College. Some of these historians are wonderful human beings, but they have a startling faith in the ability of government to solve our economic and political problems. Even when government doesn’t work, as in the case of FDR and Obama, historians reward these progressive presidents with top rankings just for trying. As one of my professors in graduate school told me in 1972, “I would rather vote for Stalin than Nixon.” If so, we should almost expect FDR and Obama to be judged ahead of Washington and Reagan.

Most Americans are repelled by the judgment of Siena College’s historians. Most Americans believe in more limited government and they are skeptical of concentrating power in the hands of one leader, or a small group of leaders. Most Americans instinctively smile when they read these words from James Madison: “The great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. . . . Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”

Such a view of human nature was right in 1788, when Madison wrote Federalist No. 51, and is right today as well. Madison added, “But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” But men aren’t angels. And so FDR and Obama need a vigilant Congress and an alert citizenry to prevent them from packing the Supreme Court and borrowing trillions of dollars to dispense political favors to key support groups in their political coalitions.

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