How has history's ranking of presidents changed over time?

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In love and politics alike, absence tends to make the heart grow fonder. As InsideGov looked at how historians and political scientists have ranked U.S. presidents, we found that, in general, perceptions of presidents improved with a bit of distance.

Using rankings from a batch of scholar surveys InsideGov tracked how every president's score fluctuated from 1948 to 2015 (President Barack Obama isn't included in the list because he only has been ranked in two surveys).

How does history grade your favorite president?

#1. George Washington

Top Rank: No. 1
Bottom Rank: No. 4

There's something to be said for going first. President George Washington — who led the Continental Army against the British in the Revolutionary War, presided over the creation of the Constitution and was unanimously elected president (twice!) — consistently ranks as one of the top four presidents in U.S. history. Even though he is always in the top tier, Washington comes in first place in only two surveys, often scoring just below President Abraham Lincoln.

#2. John Adams

Top Rank: No. 9
Bottom Rank: No. 17

Although President John Adams was the country's first vice president and second commander-in-chief, historical rankings haven't favored him like his predecessor. During his presidency, Adams lost popularity when he advocated to stay out of a brewing conflict between Great Britain and France. Adams may well be the OG of family dynasties in American politics, seeing as his cousin, Samuel Adams, was a fellow revolutionary and became the governor of Massachusetts, and his son, President John Quincy Adams, was elected as the nation's sixth president.

#3. Thomas Jefferson

Top Rank: No. 2
Bottom Rank: No. 7

Considered the "primary author" of the Declaration of Independence, President Thomas Jefferson is revered among his fellow Founding Fathers. But his relationship to the issue of slavery complicates his place in American presidential history: Jefferson owned slaves, yet expressed abolitionist views. In fact, his dip to seventh place in the late 1990s coincided with a report that showed Jefferson was likely the father of six children with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings.

#4. James Madison

Top Rank: No. 6
Bottom Rank: No. 20

Despite being considered the "Father of the Constitution" and the main author of the subsequent Bill of Rights, President James Madison doesn't get a lot of love from political scholars and historians, who recently ranked him at the 20th spot. The Miller Center, a nonpartisan group that studies the presidency, posits this is due largely to Madison's personal leadership style, which was better suited to the "small arena" than the Oval Office.

#5. James Monroe

Top Rank: No. 7
Bottom Rank: No. 21

The last Founding Father to be president, President James Monroe doesn't garner the same degree of praise as his fellow early American presidents. Although his popularity tanked in 2008, he bounced back by 2010 to the number seven spot.

#6. John Quincy Adams

Top Rank: No. 11
Bottom Rank: No. 25

President John Quincy Adams brought an enviable personal biography (son of the second president) and an excellent résumé (successful diplomat) to his tenure as the sixth president, but that hasn't led historians to give him particularly high marks. Perhaps his success as the Secretary of State under President James Monroe or his 17 years representing Massachusetts in the House of Representatives overshadowed his four years in the White House.

#7. Andrew Jackson

Top Rank: No. 5
Bottom Rank: No. 14

The current political conversation about national debt could be the main factor that has boosted President Andrew Jackson's ranking in the past few years. The seventh president and father of the modern-day Democratic Party is the only politician to completely pay off the national debt (although it should be noted that the event preceded a significant economic depression).

#8. Martin Van Buren

Top Rank: No. 15
Bottom Rank: 40

The beginning of President Martin Van Buren's administration saw the nation dive even deeper into a years-long depression, which may explain why his stock dipped so significantly in 2008, the same year the global economy went through a major crisis.

#9. William Henry Harrison

Top Rank: No. 26
Bottom Rank: No. 39

The ninth president still holds the record for the shortest length of time in office, at 32 days. President William Henry Harrison died of a respiratory infection, likely brought about after he delivered his inauguration speech without a coat in March. Because of his short time in office, some scholars exclude him from their rankings.

#10. John Tyler

Top Rank: No. 22
Bottom Rank: No. 37

After President William Henry Harrison died, his vice president, John Tyler, assumed the position, becoming the first VP to take over an administration. Tyler's one term in office was marked by his commitment to states' rights and, in his very last days in the White House, the annexation of Texas. It's interesting to note that in the more recent scholarly surveys — in years when the political climate has been particularly polarized — Tyler has received his lowest marks. According to the Miller Center, Tyler was stubborn and refused to compromise while president, which frustrated his colleagues.

#11. James K. Polk

Top Rank: No. 8
Bottom Rank: No. 19

President James Polk had one of the more efficient presidencies, leading the country through the Mexican-American War (which gained significant land for the U.S.), overseeing the opening of the Naval Academy and the Smithsonian, breaking ground on the Washington Monument and seeing the first postage stamps hit the mail system. But Polk's diminishing rank confuses many, as he is often listed as one of the more over overlooked presidents. An InsideGov story on the most underrated presidents finds Polk is one of the more undervalued commanders-in-chief.

#12. Zachary Taylor

Top Rank: No. 24
Bottom Rank: No. 34

During the mid-19th century, slavery began to dominate political conversations in the U.S., especially in relation to how newly added states and territories should handle the issue. President Zachary Taylor, an Army hero during the Mexican-American War, owned slaves but suggested that recently formed California and New Mexico ban slavery in their state constitutions. He died just 17 months into his first term, which may explain his consistent low numbers among scholars.

#13. Millard Fillmore

Top Rank: No. 24
Bottom Rank: 38

Although President Zachary Taylor's short time in office gets him low marks, his successor, President Millard Fillmore, is often toward the bottom of the list among historians, too. During his one term in office, Fillmore kept the Union together with the Compromise of 1850, a package of bills that articulated how to handle slavery in the states acquired after the Mexican-American War. But, as was true of the other presidents during this era, this was perceived as just a Band-Aid for the issue. The presidents in the 10 to 15 years before Abraham Lincoln came into office all get low marks in scholarly rankings.

#14. Franklin Pierce

Top Rank: No. 27
Bottom Rank: No. 41

President Franklin Pierce has never gotten high marks, but in the last 30 years, he has lived at the bottom of presidential rankings. Although the country didn't break out into all-out war over slavery during his one term, a number of bloody conflicts did take place in Kansas and Nebraska, where voters (not government officials) got to decide how the new states would handle slavery. But what really seals Pierce's fate on the bottom of the list? He was openly critical of President Abraham Lincoln.

#15. James Buchanan

Top Rank: No. 26
Bottom Rank: No. 43

President James Buchanan's four years in the White House were characterized by growing discontent around the issue of slavery, and his inability to assert a position on what to do made him unpopular at the time. That has only continued to follow him, as scholars rank him as one of the worst presidents in American history.

#16. Abraham Lincoln

Top Rank: No. 1
Bottom Rank: No. 3

The beloved 16th president, always ranked among the top three leaders, guided the U.S. through the Civil War, to the Emancipation Proclamation, to Reconstruction. A little more than five months after President Abraham Lincoln was reelected in 1864, he was assassinated by confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth. Lincoln's preservation of a united country, coupled with his assassination, promise to keep him among the top-ranked presidents of all time.

#17. Andrew Johnson

Top Rank: No. 19
Bottom Rank: No. 43

After running in the VP spot on President Abraham Lincoln's reelection campaign in 1864, Andrew Johnson rose to the presidency when Lincoln was assassinated. Lincoln's revered status makes him a tough act to follow, but Johnson didn't win any fans among historians with some of his post-Civil War policies, like his opposition to the 14th Amendment, which granted citizenship to recently freed slaves. The Miller Center notes Johnson "is viewed to have been a rigid, dictatorial racist who was unable to compromise or to accept a political reality at odds with his own ideas."

#18. Ulysses S. Grant

Top Rank: No. 18
Bottom Rank: No. 38

A Union Army general in the Civil War who was close with President Abraham Lincoln, President Ulysses S. Grant served two terms in the White House and oversaw the passage of many key civil rights protections for African-Americans. But Grant's time in office was also characterized by corruption and a years-long depression, which likely accounts for historians giving him lower marks.

#19. Rutherford B. Hayes

Top Rank: No. 13
Bottom Rank: No. 33

During his one term in office, President Rutherford B. Hayes saw the country through the last stages of Reconstruction. Despite a commitment to civil rights and promoting education, especially after he left office, scholars rank Hayes fairly low when compared with other presidents.

#20. James A. Garfield

Top Rank: No. 25
Bottom Rank: No. 34

President James A. Garfield was in office for a mere 200 days: He was assassinated 100 days after being sworn in and spent his remaining days attempting to recover from the shooting. His short time in office means he usually is toward the bottom of presidential rankings.

#21. Chester A. Arthur

Top Rank: No. 17
Bottom Rank: No. 32

Assuming the presidency after the assassination of President James Garfield, President Chester A. Arthur served his four years in the White House methodically and without much fanfare.

#22. Grover Cleveland

Top Rank: No. 8
Bottom Rank: No. 23

As the only person to serve two non-consecutive terms in the White House, President Grover Cleveland holds a special spot in American presidential history. The conservative Democrat's second term was plagued by a severe economic depression, which may explain his ranking dip in 2008, when the U.S. went through a significant recession.

#23. Benjamin Harrison

Top Rank: No. 19
Bottom Rank: 34

Sandwiched in between President Grover Cleveland's two terms, President Benjamin Harrison's time at the White House was characterized by his domestic economic policies. He supported higher tariffs and, as a result, government spending ballooned. Although Harrison has never enjoyed high marks, his lowest ranking came when the U.S. was clawing its way out of 2008's recession.

#24. William McKinley

Top Rank: No. 10
Bottom Rank: No. 21

Before his assassination in 1901, President William McKinley oversaw the U.S. to victory in the Spanish-American War and, stateside, maintained the gold standard. The Miller Center reports that historians in the latter part of the 20th century gave McKinley higher marks because of a renewed sense that he was a "cunning and manipulative leader bent on expanding American influence in the world."

#25. Theodore Roosevelt

Top Rank: No. 2
Bottom Rank: No. 7

Nobel Peace Prize winner, well-known conservationist and the bespectacled face on Mount Rushmore, President Teddy Roosevelt consistently ranks among the top presidents in U.S. history. He believed the government should regulate big business and oversaw the beginning stages of the construction of the Panama Canal.

#26. William Howard Taft

Top Rank: No. 16
Bottom Rank: No. 29

During his one term in office, President William Howard Taft established the federal income tax through the 16th Amendment and focused on trust-busting. He went on to become the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in the 1920s.

#27. Woodrow Wilson

Top Rank: No. 4
Bottom Rank: No. 11

A progressive Democrat, President Woodrow Wilson sidestepped a railroad strike in 1916 by instituting an eight-hour workday for that industry's workers. He led the country into World War I, telling a joint session of Congress that the U.S. needed to enter the conflict because "the world must be made safe for democracy." Wilson also signed the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote, and won a Nobel Peace Prize for his work promoting the League of Nations, a precursor to the United Nations.

#28. Warren G. Harding

Top Rank: No. 29
Bottom Rank: No. 42

In his two-and-a-half years in the White House, President Warren G. Harding advocated for an anti-lynching bill and formed the Veterans Bureau, which ultimately became the Department of Veterans' Affairs. But he also had at least two extramarital affairs, one of which was confirmed in August 2015, which may explain why that same year sports his lowest score.

#29. Calvin Coolidge

Top Rank: No. 23
Bottom Rank: No. 36

President Calvin Coolidge was in the White House during most of the 1920s, cutting taxes and advocating for fewer business regulations. The stock market crash and subsequent Great Depression happened a few months after he left office, likely contributing to his low rankings.

#30. Herbert Clark Hoover

Top Rank: No. 19
Bottom Rank: No. 38

President Herbert Hoover presided over the Great Depression, which has garnered him low scores throughout history. Not helping his popularity? He was in favor of prohibition.

#31. Franklin D. Roosevelt

Top Rank: No. 1
Bottom Rank: No. 3

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's high marks continued throughout his administration and into recent times: He was elected to a record four terms in the White House and consistently is ranked among the top three presidents of all time. Roosevelt ushered the nation through World War II and developed the slate of New Deal programs that boosted economic growth and recovery from the Great Depression.

#32. Harry S. Truman

Top Rank: No. 5
Bottom Rank: No. 9

At the end of World War II, President Harry S. Truman dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, killing more than 100,000 Japanese people in the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Although the decision continues to be debated, historians highly rank Truman's two terms in the White House. His approval rating was a dismal 22 percent a year before he left office, but by the 1962 survey — nine years after his term ended — scholars ranked Truman as the eighth-best president.

#33. Dwight Eisenhower

Top Rank: No. 6
Bottom Rank: No. 22

The first survey that included President Dwight Eisenhower was published a year after he left office, and historians scored him toward the bottom of the list. But by the early '80s, Eisenhower's stock went up. One reason may be his role in the early stages of the Cold War, when he kept the U.S. out of direct conflict and signed the armistice that ended fighting in the Korean War.

#34. John F. Kennedy

Top Rank: No. 6
Bottom Rank: No. 18

President John F. Kennedy's years in the White House were marked by progressive domestic work, like the creation of the Peace Corps and early-on developments in the civil rights movement. But his increased involvement in the Vietnam War, the Bay of Pigs Invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis made for a pockmarked international record. Although revered for his place in the era's pop culture, Kennedy has scored lower marks from historians than from the American public.

#35. Lyndon Johnson

Top Rank: No. 10
Bottom Rank: No. 18

Assuming the presidency after the assassination of President Kennedy, President Lyndon Baines Johnson continued many of the progressive domestic initiatives of his predecessor. But Johnson ramped up American involvement in the Vietnam War, which may explain why his historical rankings have gone down in recent years, when the U.S. has been involved in another protracted war in Afghanistan.

#36. Richard Nixon

Top Rank: No. 23
Bottom Rank: No. 38

The only president to resign from office, President Richard Nixon's years in the White House are often defined by the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up. But before the career-ending scandal took over headlines, Nixon oversaw the last days of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and ended the military draft, as well as opened up diplomatic relations with China and saw American astronauts land on the moon at the height of the space race. Nixon's gains, combined with his massive corruption scandal, complicate his status among historians, who have ping-ponged between putting him at the bottom of the list and somewhere in the middle.

#37. Gerald Ford

Top Rank: No. 22
Bottom Rank: No. 32

In the wake of the Watergate scandal, Gerald Ford was first appointed to vice president and then became the president when President Nixon resigned — making him the only person to hold both offices without being elected to either position. Although America's involvement in the Vietnam War tapered significantly during his tenure, he oversaw a sputtering economy. But Ford's controversial pardon of Nixon is likely what earned those bad to mediocre scores among historians.

#38. Jimmy Carter

Top Rank: No. 18
Bottom Rank: No. 34

President Jimmy Carter has ping-ponged around historians' rankings, in 2005 hitting his low of 34th place and in 2011 coming in at 18th. In general, his post-presidency work is seen in a more positive light, according to the Miller Center. In 2002, he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work through the Carter Center, a human rights nonprofit.

#39. Ronald Reagan

Top Rank: No. 6
Bottom Rank: No. 26

Although revered within the Republican Party, President Ronald Reagan hasn't always gotten high marks from historians. Interestingly enough, in 2010, when Republicans delivered that "shellacking" to President Obama and took over the House of Representatives in a midterm tea party wave, Reagan scored at 18th among historians.

#40. George Bush Sr.

Top Rank: No. 17
Bottom Rank: No. 31

In the middle of his term, President George H. W. Bush received high marks. But two years after he left the White House, historians gave him his lowest mark, at 31st. His numbers leveled out in 2000, when his son, President George W. Bush, was sworn into office.

#41. Bill Clinton

Top Rank: No. 8
Bottom Rank: No. 24

It's been a rocky ride for President Bill Clinton, who got his lowest mark in 2000, right after he left office but while the Monica Lewinsky scandal was still fresh in everyone's minds. He pushed into the top 10 in the latest survey among political scientists, potentially buoyed by a renewed interest in his legacy, seeing as his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is running for president.

#42. George W. Bush

Top Rank: No. 19
Bottom Rank: No. 39

While still in office, President George W. Bush received higher marks. But once he left the White House in 2008, his scores plummeted. Many of Bush's policies abroad, including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, were hugely unpopular and became key election year issues in 2008.

Learn More About U.S. Presidents

Related: Look back through pictures of presidents pardoning Thanksgiving turkeys:

Presidents with Turkeys - Thanksgiving - Turkey pardons
See Gallery
How has history's ranking of presidents changed over time?

Photograph of President Truman looking on as representatives of the turkey industry exhibit the Thanksgiving turkey they have presented to the President, outside the White House, 11/16/1949

(Flickr/US National Archives)

The President Receives Thanksgiving Turkey from Poultry and Egg National Board, Accompanied by Senator Everett M. Dirkson , 11/19/1963

(Flickr/US National Archives)

Turkey presentation for Thanksgiving, 11/18/1969

(Flickr/US National Archives)

President Richard Nixon on Thanksgiving Day, November 20, 1970, in Washington. (Photo by Keystone-France\Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Pat Nixon Receives the Annual Live Thanksgiving Turkey, 11/23/1971

(Flickr/US National Archives)

President Gerald R. Ford is Presented with a Thanksgiving Turkey by the National Turkey Federation, 11/20/1975

(Flickr/US National Archives)

Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation at the White House, 11/23/1982

(Flickr/US National Archives)

President Reagan Attending a Ceremony to Receive the 36th Annual Thanksgiving Turkey from Representatives of the National Turkey Federation on the South Lawn, 11/21/1983

(Flickr/US National Archives)

President Reagan attending ceremony to receive the 36th annual Thanksgiving Turkey from representatives of the National Turkey Federation on the South Lawn.

(Flickr/US National Archives)

White House Ceremony to Receive the 40th Thanksgiving Turkey, 11/23/1987

(Flickr/US National Archives)

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 27: President Barack Obama with his daughters by his side, Sasha and malia, ceremoniously pardon Popcorn the turkey during the annual 2013 National Thanksgiving Turkey Pardoning Ceremony on the north portico of the White House on Wednesday, November 27, 2013. The turkey, and turkey alternate, will be driven to George Washingtons Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens. And will be on display for visitors during Christmas at Mount Vernon, through January 6. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 26: (L to R) U.S. President Barack Obama smiles at his his daughters Sasha and Malia after he pardoned 'Cheese' and his alternate Mac (not shown,) both 20-week old 48-pound Turkeys, during a ceremony at the White House November 26, 2014 in Washington, DC. The Presidential pardon of a turkey has been a long time Thanksgiving tradition that dates back to the Harry Truman administration.(Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

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