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New ranking of presidents is good news for Buchanan

Good news for former President James Buchanan. Buchanan, who has long been ranked by most experts in presidential history as the worst president in U.S. history, has dropped to second-worst in the latest survey of experts on the presidency and its history. I won’t mention who is the new worst, but if you can’t guess you can read it in Gail Collins’ fairly hilarious column in the New York Times. Her column is headlined "Everyone’s Better than You-Know-Who."

For those less-steeped in presidential history, Democrat Buchanan, the 15th president, who served from 1857 to early 1861, gets his low ranking because he did nothing to deal with the crisis over slavery and the drift into Civil War.

In fact, although all the secessions of southern states occurred after the 1860 election, the first six southern states to secede did so before the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln (although all of them occurred after Lincoln’s election).

Since I’m taking the day off from referring to You-Know-Who, and since I’m a history nut, I’ll seize the occasion to make my favorite other point about Buchanan, which is that he helps make the case against too much credentialism in thinking about who would be a good president.

Buchanan ranks high, possibly at the top among presidents in terms of credentials. He served in both the U.S. House and Senate (from Pennsylvania) and as minister to Russia, ambassador to Britain and as secretary of state.

Notwithstanding all those experiences, he has long been a near-consensus choice as worst-president-ever, until now.

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Comments (4)

Ranking the Rankings

I have three issues with rankings like this.

First, if ranking the Presidents is going to be anything more than a diverting parlor game, it would seem best to limit the rankings to Presidents who have been out of office for at least 20 to 30 years. Any time period less than that will let judgment be clouded by partisan opinion. In addition, the full impact of a President's term in office may not be clear until years after he has left office.

The second is that Presidents serve in particular historical periods, and are themselves the product of history. We will never know, for example, if Hoover would have handled southern secession better than Lincoln did, or if the Anglophobe/Francophile Jefferson would have managed our involvement in either World War better or worse than Wilson or FDR/Truman. Comparing Presidencies that existed in such different times in history is comparing apples to oranges.

Third, leave WH Harrison off of these rankings. He was President for a month. A fast food worker would still be on probation. Likewise Garfield, who was in office for less than a year. How do you compare their tenure to a President who served the full two terms?

There are also quibbles with the rankings, especially in the survey Collins cites. Grant is way overrated here, but that's a matter of opinion.

Yes, but…

I agree – it's not much beyond a popularity contest between apples and oranges of different time periods. Would the Honeycrisp apple be as popular in 1905 as it is now? Would orange juice have been a breakfast staple in 1825 if it had been available? Still an interesting personal barometer, just to see how my own prejudices stack up against those of people supposedly more knowledgeable.

I'd leave Harrison and Garfield off the list, too, if it was my list. Interesting questions, though – and another reason I don't mind the rankings if they promote those kinds of questions – about whether president 'x' would have handled the Cold War, or slavery, or women's suffrage, better or worse or perhaps just differently than president 'z,' who was in office at the time.

And besides, humans have been telling each other "S/He's better than her/him" for about as long as there have been humans.


Good point about Buchanan's credentials. In today's universe, he'd have been perhaps the ultimate "establishment" politician. On the other hand, our Current Occupant, who surely got many votes because he was touted by many media outlets (and touted himself, as well) as the anti-establishment or "populist" candidate, has turned out to be just as much an establishment politician, only in a very different way. It's difficult to reconcile "populist" and "plutocrat."

It's nice to know

that, given the tentative nature of rankings of recent presidents, the current occupant
(he who shall not be named) could end up ranked lower than he is now.