In November 1948, Life magazine published an innovative article by Harvard historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr., a noted scholar of his time and father of later historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. Schlesinger’s piece presented the first academic survey in the White House Rating Game and set in motion the ongoing discussion of presidential performance that has come down to our own time. Schlesinger polled fifty-five experts, mostly historians but also some journalists and political scientists, and asked them to place the presidents in one of five categories – Great, Near Great, Average, Below Average, and Failure. William Henry Harrison and James A. Garfield were left out because of the brevity of their presidential tenures. The professor instructed his respondents: “The test in each case is performance in office, omitting everything done before or after.” Beyond that, Schlesinger left all criteria of judgment to the respondents.
The Schlesinger poll ranked the presidents based on the number of votes they received for each category. Lincoln, the only president to be rated unanimously as Great, emerged at the top of the presidential list. The other Greats, in descending order, were George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson. The Near Great category included (in rank order) Theodore Roosevelt, Grover Cleveland, John Adams, and James K. Polk. The Failure category consisted of Ulysses S. Grant and Warren G. Harding. The other presidents were scattered throughout the Average and Below Average categories.
The Schlesinger poll immediately demonstrated America’s fascination with its presidents. It generated extensive discourse centered not just on the rankings themselves but on questions of the soundness of the Schlesinger methodology and even whether there was any particular value in such polling initiatives. Many Republicans questioned the high standing of Franklin Roosevelt, then still widely despised by his political opponents. Schlesinger Sr. never suggested his poll results represented any kind of definitive judgment on the presidents but rather were merely a “highly informed opinion” by a collection of worthy historical experts. Nevertheless, the 1948 Life article proved highly influential, and soon Schlesinger’s poll was cited by many as a conclusive historical assessment.
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