In surveys of presidential historians over the last two decades, Ulysses S. Grant has risen higher in rank than any other president.
In 2000, Grant ranked 33. In the latest survey of presidential historians, taken in 2021 by C-SPAN, Grant’s rank came in at 20. That’s a jump of 13 positions over 21 years, from the bottom third to, well, the top 20. As the Washington Post explains,
The president whose reputation has improved the most in the past two decades? That’s Ulysses S. Grant, who started at No. 33 and is now ranked 20th. Grant has had a number of sympathetic biographies in recent years, and these days gets more credit for Reconstruction and his diplomacy than condemnation for his alleged corruption.
In the survey, historians rank presidents on ten criteria. Grant did best on four criteria. On a criterion that will resonate well with a time focused on issues of race and fairness, Grant ranked a stunning #6 for “Pursued Equal Justice for All.” On three either criteria, Grant ranked #16:
- Crisis Leadership
- Relations with Congress
- Performed within Context of Times
Grant ranked lowest on “Administrative Skills” (#36) and “Economic Management” (#28). Yet, in these and every other category, Grant’s rank was up from the previous survey taken in 2017.
The top and bottom three presidents all remained the same as in the previous survey.
At the top were 1) Lincoln 2) Washington and 3) FDR.
Three antebellum and Civil War-era presidents ranked at the bottom: Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson and, at the very bottom, James Buchanan.
In a negative reflection of Grant’s rise in ranking over the last two decades of surveys, one president was notable for his fall over the same period. Woodrow Wilson was ranked 6th best president in 2000, but fell to 13th place in 2021. The category where Grant performed strongest, “Pursued Equal Justice for All,” was where Wilson did the worst, ranking 37th.
This year C-SPAN broadened its survey pool out to more historians than in the past, 142 in total this time, and sought more historians who are women, people of color and younger people.
That more diverse pool of responders, more likely to put a higher premium on race and equity, may have helped Grant rise, though his star has been on the ascendent even among old white guy historians for three decades or more.
The C-SPAN survey of historians is supposed to cover a leader’s importance only during his time serving as president. However, twelve presidents served as army generals before taking the presidential oath of office. In the popular mind, it’s hard to separate their military service from their time as president.
While Washington was a significant president purely for being the first, since his presidency was a time of peace and prosperity, it was not as eventful as the terms of wartime presidents like Lincoln, FDR, Wilson, or even James K. Polk. And there was no wrenching economic crisis as under Hoover or Carter. Surely part of Washington ranking #2 for ordinary Americans, if not for historians, was his role as victorious general in the American Revolution.
Likewise with another highly ranked president, Eisenhower (#5). Aside from the end of the Korean War, the ongoing Cold War and the beginning of the civil rights movement, Ike’s presidency also spanned a period of relative peace and prosperity. Does he rate top ten status just because he got along well with leaders of the House and Senate or could give a good speech? Or did defeating Hitler have something to do with it?
Winning a big war before your presidency is not one of the criteria listed by C-SPAN. But shouldn’t it be? If you saved your country and maybe even the world, shouldn’t that give you some extra credit?
Maybe not as a president alone but certainly as an American leader. And that’s why nineteenth century Americans ranked Grant as one of America’s top three leaders along with Washington and Lincoln.
Today, if you throw in his Civil War leadership, it would be hard to keep Grant out of the top ten of presidents who also saved their country from ruin.
But even if you consider Grant’s presidency alone, surely America’s first civil rights president, who bucked public opinion both North and South to crush the KKK and stand up for voting rights of Black southerners, deserves a higher rank than 20th place.
Somebody ought to run a campaign to get Grant into the top ten.