The historians participating in C-Span’s survey for ranking the presidents revealed one thing: even the pros are a little shaky about what to make of some of our nation’s leaders.
Oh, the 64 historians who took part were pretty solid on the good presidents (Lincoln, Washington, the Roosevelt boys), and the rotten ones (Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Franklin Pierce). Those rankings reflect remarkable consistency between a 2000 survey and this year’s effort. But what about those folks in the middle?
Ulysses S. Grant — I won’t mince words. I’m a fan of Sam Grant. Born Hiram Ulysses Grant, he went to West Point as a young man and discovered someone had garbled his name into Ulysses S. Grant, then his classmates logically christened him “Uncle Sam” Grant. So what did Hiram do? He accepted the renaming (rebranding?), limped through the West Point curriculum while mostly reading novels and riding horses, and proceeded to make little impression on the world until he became the commander of the largest military force ever to march in the Western Hemisphere. Not only that, but he plays a major role in my upcoming book on the Andrew Johnson impeachment trial.
But, as much as I’m a Grant guy, I’m hard pressed to explain what he has done in the last nine years that would justify vaulting from No. 33 o the C-SPAN hit parade to No. 23. Was there a Grant policy intitiative that I missed? And then there’s his successor, Rutherford B. Hayes, who slid seven spots in the rankings, from 26 to 33. And Grover Cleveland lost four spots, from 17 to 21. What’s happening to these presidents who lived at about the same time? Hmmmmm.
My best guess is that many of the “experts” surveyed in 2000 and in 2009 don’t know a whole lot about the Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction eras, which often pass for the Black Hole of U.S. history. As a result, their opinions careen around from year to year for no particular reason.
Then again, there are other weirdnesses in the survey. Sooner or later, the testosterone glow surrounding John Kennedy will finally wear off and he will slip from his current ridiculous spot at # 6 (above Thomas Jefferson, for heaven’s sake). And I wish they would drop poor old William Henry Harrison off the survey. The man was president for only 40 days — ranking him fourth from the bottom just seems mean.