Lincoln Tops Among U.S. Historians

February 16, 2009

Abraham Lincoln ranks first in leadership skills among the 42 former White House occupants, according a C-SPAN survey  of 65 presidential historians released on the eve of the  Presidents Day holiday.

 It’s a repeat performance for the 16th U.S. president, who also took the top spot in the first “Historians Presidential Survey” by the cable television network in 2000.

 At No. 36, George W. Bush ranks near the bottom of the 2009 survey . 

Bush left office after two terms with one of the lowest approval ratings of any president in modern times — under 30 percent. In a series of exit interviews,  he said history will take a kinder view of his legacy but only “after some time has passed.”

Bush may be on to something.

 Bill Clinton ranked 21 in the 2000 survey. He’s up six spots the new ranking at 15. Ulysses S. Grant also got a significant boost in ranking in 2009. 

“All of which goes to show two things: the fluidity with which presidential reputations are judged, and the difficulty of assessing any president who has only just recently left office,” said Richard Norton Smith, Scholar in Residence at George Mason University.

Smith is one of four academics who guided both the 2000 and 2009 surveys. The historians were asked to rate the former leaders in 10 categories ranging from “public persuasion” to “performance within the context of his times.”

James Buchanan, who preceeded Lincoln,  is at the bottom of the list.  He was president when the United States began splittig apart over the issue of slavery.   His White House biography says:  “Buchanan grasped inadequately the political realities of the time. ”

And he’s the only president who never married.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

This is unbelievable.. When Newt Gingrich chastised the Soviets for not going to war to hold the USSR together he invokes Lincoln. These big government propagandist have pumping the most hated man of the 19th century is beyond moral belief. From the fraud at Fort Sumner, to
the suspension of habeas corpus or jailing news paper men Lincoln? How about asking what percentage of the population died? How about naming another country that needed a war to get rid of slavery? What are these guys thinking? Do they really not question the glorification of the warfare state?

Posted by John | Report as abusive

It’s hard to see why George Bush is not at the bottom of the list. In foreign affairs an unnecessary war and an arrogant “our way or the highway” approach has wrecked our international reputation and increased extremist Islamic opposition to America. In domestic matters his tax cuts and a total failure to regulate the financial system have brought us into the worst recession since the 1930s and sharply increased the inequality of income and wealth distribution in America. It is my belief he has done more damage to our country than any other single person in our history.

Posted by milt | Report as abusive

They found 8 presidents who were worse than George W. Bush??? Who were they?

I can understand James Buchanan being the worst. He let his Secratary of War hand the Confederacy all the military equipment he could get his hands on just before the civil war.

I’m going to guess that Andrew Johnson, Warren Harding and Herber Hoover might be in the bottom 8 too. I’m at a complete loss to think of who else could be worse. Even Nixon didn’t cause anywhere near the sort of damage that Bush Jr. did.

Posted by Daniel | Report as abusive

On average president’s approval stays the same over time. Because for every president that gains favor another drops. They can’t all go up in relative approval.

Posted by Bill M | Report as abusive

i think history will be kinder to george bush particularly if iraq becomes a secure middle east democracy,and if there are no terrorist attacks particularly in the following presidents obama,s term of office,on main land america.also that his presidency might be remembered also by the dignity he showed by never personally attacking or trying to demean anybody,inspite of almost 8 years of personal abuse from notable newspaper organizations who as their financial solvency and public creditability drained away by their unfair journalism.i think also the opposition congress who were in power during his tenure,and into the obama presidency if they prove to be totally incompetent that factor will help also to improve his standing in the annals of history.

Posted by brian lee | Report as abusive

Mr. George W. Bush and his father are great and just men who together with the US government had extirpated the bloodthirsty, inhuman and despotic Saddam Hussein Power of Iraq. Everybody knows that Saddam and his like had brutally killed innumerable innocent and good people!

Posted by Wang Xu | Report as abusive

I am unimpressed with the explanations of U.S. Grant’s rise from 33rd to 23rd in just one year. That’s moving from the 4th quartile to the 2nd, from a horrible to an average President.

What I read in history about Grant must have been written by people who didn’t like him, because it was said he was passive in the face of corruption and generally lazy.

I would like to read from historians the other view of his Administration which leads them to rank him so highly today.

Posted by Dana Blankenhorn | Report as abusive

History test time. If Obama is the 44th President then why are only 42 ranked? Obviously Obama is not on the list because he just started (something you nay sayers should keep in mind) so that takes us down to 43.

Posted by Eric H | Report as abusive

Although I basically agree with the rankings of US Presidents I would like to suggest that L.B.J. President Lyndon Johnston) deserves a higher ranking.

President Lyndon Johnston had an impressive legacy of legislative achievements. Even though he was a southerner, he managed to push Civil Rights Legislation through Congress (a feat President Kennedy could never have accomplished.) LBJ paid a bitter personal price for his efforts.

His tenure in office, although marred by the quagmire of the Vietnam War, was a testimony to moral principal triumphing over expediency.

TMC (Canada)

Posted by Tom Chire | Report as abusive

What could W.H. Harrison have possibly done during his one month in office to be rated worse than Bush???? Especially considering that, within that one month, he prevented another war with Britain!! Did Bush buy this election, too?

Posted by S. Armstrong | Report as abusive

This is in response to Eric H feb 16th’s posting.
“Although GWB was the 43rd president, there were actually 42 presidents. Cleveland was elected for 2 non consecutive terms and counted twice, as the 22nd and 24th president.” I read this from “10 facts US Pres, Metro News Jan 20, 2009.

Posted by gloria ortega | Report as abusive

Andrew Jackson ranking 29 in Economic Management??? He wiped out the US debt during his term.

Posted by John | Report as abusive

Excellent Gloria, I was hopeful someone could answer without looking it up but you win todays gold star!

Posted by Eric H | Report as abusive

why are the presidents in the last 50 years even on there? We have no idea of the lasting consequences they had. We cannot look at them objectively. People love JFK because he was young, Catholic, and charismatic. However, he had some giant blunders (Vietnam, Bay of Pigs, etc). Clinton may be seen as a decent president because of NAFTA. He may be crucified later too because of some of his public policy. Reagan is seen as a success by the Conservatives. However, we will see how he is judged in the future.

Personally, both 6 and 9 are way too high…Wilson, though fighting for an idea, could have prevented WWII and didn’t…but at the same time I don’t think it could have been foreseen because the Great Depression had such a global impact…but another failure was his League of Nations and the US’s failure to participate.

Posted by Enthusiast | Report as abusive

And remember, Lincoln was a widely unpopular president when he was shot. I’m not saying Bush is a Lincoln by any means, but I am saying wait to see how history judges him. He could be a terrible president, he could be a great one.

Also these lists are completely useless and subjective opinions. I can hardly believe I’m taking my time to post this.

Posted by Enthusiast | Report as abusive

[…] Lincoln Tops Among US Historians Reuters ,February 16, 2009 James Buchanan, who preceeded Lincoln, is at the bottom of the list. He was president when the United States began splittig apart over the issue of slavery. … […]

Posted by Tweet the People: The best and worst US presidents | President Story | Report as abusive

John, you need a reality check. We were in a civil war, lincoln had no choice but to take charge. He and his VP also fought for relaxing those restraints as quickly as possible after the war. He was shot (not because of that obviously) and Johnson was impeached over it. So go check some history. You must be a one of those people who calls it “the battle for southern independence” . Guess what you lost, and yes I am from the south and damn glad they lost.

Posted by dude | Report as abusive

this is for Eric: History test tiem for you-Grover Cleveland was President on two seperate occassions-thus only 42 presidents-do some rewading before speaking sir

Posted by dude w | Report as abusive