History

Historians ranked the top 20 US Presidents of all time

It should come as little surprise that, for the third time in a row, historians agreed that Abraham Lincoln was the best US president.


For C-SPAN's third Presidential Historians Survey, nearly 100 historians and biographers rated 43 US presidents on 10 qualities of presidential leadership: public persuasion, crisis leadership, economic management, moral authority, international relations, administrative skills, relations with Congress, vision, pursued equal justice for all, and performance within the context of his times.

Scores in each category were then averaged, and the 10 categories were given equal weighting in determining the presidents' total scores.

Notable top presidents include George Washington at No. 2, Thomas Jefferson at No. 7, and Barack Obama at No. 12.

While some historians weren't shocked that Obama didn't rank higher overall on the list — "That Obama came in at No. 12 his first time out is quite impressive," Douglas Brinkley of Rice University said — others were surprised by his lower-than-expected leadership rankings, including No. 7 in moral authority and No. 8 in economic management.

"But, of course, historians prefer to view the past from a distance, and only time will reveal his legacy," Edna Greene Medford of Howard University said.

Here are the top 20 presidents, according to historians surveyed by C-SPAN.

20. George H. W. Bush

Best leadership quality and rank: international relations, No. 8

19. John Adams

Best leadership quality and rank: moral authority, No. 11

18. Andrew Jackson

Portrait of Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States by Ralph Eleaser Whiteside Earl.

Best leadership quality and rank: public persuasion, No. 7

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17. James Madison

Best leadership quality and rank: moral authority, No. 9

16. William McKinley Jr.

Best leadership quality and rank: relations with Congress, No. 10

15. Bill Clinton

Best leadership quality and rank: economic management, No. 3

14. James K. Polk

(Portrait: George Peter Alexander Healy)

Best leadership quality and rank: crisis leadership and administrative skills, both No. 9

13. James Monroe

Best leadership quality and rank: international relations, No. 7

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12. Barack Obama

(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Best leadership quality and rank: pursued equal justice for all, No. 3

11. Woodrow Wilson

(Library of Congress)

Best leadership quality and rank: vision, No. 7

10. Lyndon B. Johnson

Best leadership quality and rank: relations with Congress, No. 1

9. Ronald Reagan

Best leadership quality and rank: public persuasion, No. 5

8. John F. Kennedy

Best leadership quality and rank: public persuasion, No. 6

7. Thomas Jefferson

Best leadership quality and rank: relations with Congress, vision, both No. 5

6. Harry S. Truman

(United States Library of Congress.)

Best leadership quality and rank: crisis leadership, pursued equal justice for all, both No. 4

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5. Dwight D. Eisenhower

Best leadership quality and rank: moral authority, No. 4

4. Theodore Roosevelt

Best leadership quality and rank: public persuasion, No. 2

3. Franklin D. Roosevelt

Best leadership quality and rank: public persuasion, international relations, both No. 1

2. George Washington

Best leadership quality and rank: economic management, moral authority, performance within the context of his times, all No. 1

1. Abraham Lincoln

Photo taken by one of Lincoln's law students around 1846.

Best leadership quality and rank: crisis leadership, administrative skills, vision, pursued equal justice for all, all No. 1