How will history judge President Donald Trump? One day, we’ll have an answer, thanks to C-SPAN’s Presidential Historians Survey.
The 2017 version, which polled 91 historians, saw several presidents rise and fall in the rankings. Historians evaluated them based on 10 qualities of presidential leadership, including economic management, international relations, crisis leadership, public persuasion skills and whether they pursued equal justice for all.
And of course, President Barack Obama was added to the lineup for the first time this year.
Buchanan received very low rankings for crisis leadership.
He couldn’t seem to grasp the enormity of America’s divisions over slavery, ignoring the strife and letting the issue fester in the years leading up to the Civil War.
42. Andrew Johnson (1865-1869)
Historians gave Johnson very low ratings for butting heads with Congress.
Johnson, who became president when Lincoln was assassinated, refused to compromise with radical Republicans bent on fighting the old Confederacy. He often tried to side-step them and even faced impeachment, but was acquitted by one vote.
41. Franklin Pierce (1853-1857)
Pierce received low ratings when it came to pursuing equal justice for all Americans.
He signed into law the Kansas-Nebraska act, which allowed residents of new territories to decide on the legality of slavery for themselves.
40. Warren G. Harding (1921-1923)
Scandals that plagued Harding’s presidency, like the infamous Teapot Dome scandal in which cronies profited from secret oil deals, keep him low in the rankings.
39. John Tyler (1841-1845)
Historians fault Tyler over his weak pursuit of equal justice for all Americans.
Tyler, the first vice president ever elevated to the presidency when his predecessor died, was a strong advocate of states’ rights. He later joined the Southern Confederacy.
38. William Henry Harrison (1841)
Harrison received the lowest rankings for his crisis leadership skills, but historians have little to judge him on since Harrison died on his 32nd day in office.
Credit: Albert Gallatin Hoit/National Portrait Gallery
37. Millard Fillmore (1850-1853)
Historians fault Fillmore for signing the Fugitive Slave Act, which required that escaped slaves be returned to their masters.
36. Herbert Hoover (1929-1933)
Hoover’s economic management rating drags down his ranking.
Months after his election, the stock market crashed and the U.S. spiraled into the Great Depression.
35. Chester A. Arthur (1881-1885)
Arthur gets low ratings for his failure to ensure equal justice for all.
His administration enacted the first immigration law, which excluded Chinese people as well as “paupers, criminals, and lunatics.”
Credit: Ole Peter Hansen Balling/National Portrait Gallery
34. Martin Van Buren (1837-1841)
Van Buren received low rankings for his economic management.
When he assumed the presidency, the economy was booming, but less than three months later, businesses and banks were failing, and historians believe his policies only made things worse.
33. George W. Bush (2001-2009)
Bush’s lowest ranking is in international relations.
His most controversial decision was the 2003 invasion of Iraq based on the belief that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein posed a threat to the U.S.
In the years since Bush left office at the height of an economic crisis, historians surveyed by C-SPAN have reevaluated his record and he’s moved up in the rankings, from 36th place in 2009 to 33rd place today.
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32. Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881)
Historians weren’t impressed by Hayes’ record on equal justice.
Hayes pledged to protect the rights of African-Americans in the South but then withdrew federal troops, preferring what he hoped would be “wise, honest, and peaceful local self-government.”
31. Zachary Taylor (1849-1850)
Taylor, a former military hero, received low rankings for his failings in the pursuit of equal justice.
When it came to the searing debate over slavery, he tried to skirt the issue by holding that states could decide on slavery laws on their own.
30. Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893)
Harrison received low ratings for economic and crisis management skills, and for failing to pursue equality for all Americans, but ranked a bit higher at international relations.
Harrison tried to fix a high tariff problem, but prices rose and prosperity suffered.
29. James A. Garfield (1881)
Garfield, a former Civil War general and congressman from Ohio, is ranked lowest for his international relations skills.
He was assassinated just 200 days into his presidency.
28. Richard Nixon (1969-1974)
Nixon is rated extremely low for moral authority, which drags down his high ratings in categories like international relations.
His accomplishments included ending the draft, new anticrime initiatives and policies to protect the environment. He negotiated arms control with Russia and made a diplomatic breakthrough with communist China. But Nixon’s triumphs were overshadowed by the Watergate scandal, which stemmed from a break-in at the offices of the Democratic National Committee during his reelection campaign. On Aug. 9, 1974, Nixon became the first U.S. president to resign.
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27. Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929)
Coolidge is rated poorly for crisis leadership and failing to work for equal justice for all Americans.
He refused to use the country’s economic boom to help struggling farmers and workers in other flailing industries.
26. Jimmy Carter (1977-1981)
Carter ranked very highly for pursuing equal justice but low for his crisis leadership.
He is credited with creating developing a national energy policy to deal with shortages, and brought Israel and Egypt together for the Camp David accords. But his administration struggled with economic stagnation and experienced setbacks like the Iran hostage crisis.
25. Gerald Ford (1974-1977)
Ford ranked highest for his moral authority and lowest for his vision and ability to set an agenda.
Assuming the presidency after Richard Nixon’s resignation, Ford tried to move the country past the political crisis by granting Nixon a full pardon. Ford won the Republican nomination in 1976, but lost the election.
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24. William Howard Taft (1909-1913)
Historians rated Taft most highly for his administrative skills and handling of international relations.
Taft favored the law over politics and went on to serve as Chief Justice of the United States.
Cleveland dropped from 17th place in C-SPAN’s 2000 survey to 23rd place in 2017. Historians rated him highest for public persuasion, and lowest for pursuit of equal justice.
Cleveland vetoed a bill that would have given government money to veterans, drought-stricken farmers and people with disabilities, and he sent in federal troops to break a railroad workers’ strike.
He is the only president to leave the White House and later return for a second term.
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22. Ulysses S. Grant (1869–1877)
Grant led the North to victory in the Civil War, but received low marks for his administrative skills once he assumed the presidency.
21. John Quincy Adams (1825-1829)
Adams ranked highest for his moral authority.
His served during a time of great division in the country and faced a contentious Congress, but fought hard for civil liberties and the unification of the country.
20. George H.W. Bush (1989-1993)
Historians gave high ratings to Bush for his handling of international relations.
Bush guided the country through the end of the Cold War and led a coalition to liberate Kuwait after Saddam Hussein’s invasion.
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19. John Adams (1797-1801)
Adams ranked the highest for his moral authority and handling of international relations.
Despite growing hostilities with France, Adams never called for war and worked through negotiations to bring about a peace deal.
Credit: National Portrait Gallery
18. Andrew Jackson (1829-1837)
Historians rate Jackson highly for his public persuasion abilities.
He waged a political battle against the Second Bank of the United States, a private company which operated as virtually a government-sponsored monopoly. The American electorate largely supported Jackson’s views and handed him a huge electoral victory for his second term.
17. James Madison (1809-1817)
Madison ranked highest for his moral authority.
He declared war against Great Britain in 1812. Americans considered the war a success, leading to a period of soaring nationalism.
16. William McKinley (1897-1901)
Historians give McKinley high marks for his public persuasion abilities.
He enacted the highest protective tariff in history, and under his leadership America experienced an industrial boom. He also led the country through the Spanish-American War, in which the U.S. conquered the Spanish fleet in Cuba, seized Manila in the Philippines, and occupied Puerto Rico. He was assassinated by an anarchist less than a year into his second term.
15. Bill Clinton (1993-2001)
Clinton’s ranking jumped from 21st place to 15th place in the C-SPAN historians’ survey between 2000 and 2017. His highest rating is in public persuasion.
The first Baby Boomer president, Clinton was the first Democrat since Franklin D. Roosevelt to win a second term, and among other achievements, proposed the first balanced budget in decades and reached a budget surplus. In his second term he faced impeachment over his liaison with a White House intern, but was acquitted by the Senate.
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14. James K. Polk (1845-1849)
Polk ranked highest for his vision and agenda-setting abilities.
Under Polk’s leadership, the U.S. acquired more than 800,000 square miles of western land, extending its boundary to the Pacific Ocean.
Credit: Max Westfield/National Portrait Museum
13. James Monroe (1817–1825)
Historians commended Monroe most for his skillful international relations.
He established the Monroe Doctrine, which warned European nations not to colonize or interfere with the Western Hemisphere.
Credit: Chester Harding/National Portrait Museum
12. Barack Obama (2009-2017)
Obama debuted in 12th place on C-SPAN list. Presidential historians rated him highly for pursuing equal justice and for his skills at public persuasion.
His signature domestic policy accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, was unpopular with Republicans but extended health insurance coverage to 20 million more Americans. His administration helped guide the country through the great recession and rescued the U.S. auto industry.
Historians in the C-SPAN survey gave him weaker marks for his dealings with Congress and international relations.
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11. Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921)
Wilson rated most highly for his vision and ability to set an agenda.
He moved many pieces of important legislation through Congress, and in 1917 convinced Congress that America could no longer remain neutral in World War I.
10. Lyndon Johnson (1963-1969)
Johnson tops the charts for his efforts in pursuing equal justice for all Americans.
Taking office after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson secured enactment of a landmark civil rights bill. He urged the country “to build a great society, a place where the meaning of man’s life matches the marvels of man’s labor,” which became his agenda, resulting in Medicare for the elderly, increased aid for education and anti-poverty programs.
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9. Ronald Reagan (1981-1989)
Regan’s ranking in the C-SPAN survey has risen consistently since 2000, largely due to more positive views of his economic management and crisis leadership. He also scored extremely highly for public persuasion skills and setting the national agenda.
By working with Congress, Reagan was able to pass legislation that sped economic growth and strengthened national defense, advancing his vision of “peace through strength” in the years leading up to the end of the Cold War.
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8. John F. Kennedy (1961-1963)
Historians credit Kennedy most for his skills in public persuasion and his vision. He also rates well for crisis management and handling international relations.
He stood up to the Soviets and successfully defused the Cuban Missile Crisis, vowed to put a man on the moon, and pushed for progress on civil rights. He was assassinated after barely a thousand days in office.
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7. Thomas Jefferson (1801–1809)
Jefferson was ranked highest for his vision and agenda setting.
He was the the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, and during his presidency he acquired the Louisiana Territory, vastly expanding the size of the country, and slashed the national debt by a third.
Credit: Mather Brown/National Portrait Gallery
6. Harry Truman (1945-1953)
Truman wins praise from historians for his crisis leadership.
After V-E Day, when Japan refused to surrender, he ordered atomic bombs to be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, finally ending World War II in the Pacific. Shortly thereafter, Truman watched the signing of the charter of the United Nations, established to preserve peace.
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5. Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961)
Eisenhower jumped from 9th place in the rankings in 2000 to 5th place in 2017, largely due to an increasingly favorable view of his crisis leadership.
Eisenhower’s energies were largely devoted to easing the tensions of the Cold War. He obtained a truce after years of war in Korea, desegregated the U.S. armed forces, and sent federal troops to enforce a court order desegregating public schools in Little Rock, Arkansas.
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4. Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt (1901-1909)
Theodore Roosevelt ranked highly for public persuasion.
Just 42 when he became the youngest president in the nation’s history, he had the excitement and energy to convince Congress to pass progressive reforms and a strong foreign policy -- exemplified by his motto, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” An avid outdoorsman, he oversaw the expansion of America’s national parks.
3. Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945)
Historians laud Franklin D. Roosevelt for his skills at public persuasion, ranking him first among all presidents in that category. He also ranked #1 in handling of foreign relations.
FDR assumed the presidency during the worst of the Great Depression, but assured the American people: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” He also led the U.S. through the perilous years of World War II.
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2. George Washington (1789-1797)
The nation’s first president ranked above all others for moral authority, economic management, and overall performance within the context of his times.
Washington fought hard for the Constitution, feeling that the Articles of Confederation were not functioning well for the country. He was disappointed to see the country becoming more politically divided toward the end of his first term, and set a precedent by choosing to retire after his second.
Credit: Rembrandt Peale/National Portrait Gallery
1. Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865)
Lincoln’s first-place standing in the C-SPAN survey is due to high ratings across the board, but historians hold him in highest esteem for crisis leadership.
He led the country through one of its most trying periods, the Civil War, and in 1863 signed the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves.