James K. Polk, one of America’s best (and largely forgotten) presidents.
History tends to sand the ugly edges off its principal cast. Time turns brutish presidents into heroes, and unabashed rapists into noblemen who “sailed the ocean blue.”
In honor of Presidents Day, I’m going to dwell on the former.
In the past, I’ve talked about presidents’ heights, and how unconventional career paths correlate to their success. Now, I’d like to dig into their legacies. Does the way we honor past presidents map to how good those presidents actually were?
Various historians rank the top ten presidents in different orders, but we have consensus that Washington, Lincoln, the Roosevelts, Truman, Kennedy, and Ike were very good presidents, while Buchanan, Pierce, W., and Harding sucked. Here’s the latest composite ranking of the “best presidents in history,” as put together by Nate Silver a year ago. He compiled this based on four recent historians’ polls, and estimated Obama’s future rank based on second-term vote data:
- Abraham Lincoln
- Franklin D. Roosevelt
- George Washington
- Theodore Roosevelt
- Thomas Jefferson
- Harry Truman
- Woodrow Wilson
- Dwight D. Eisenhower
- John F. Kennedy
- Ronald Reagan
- James K. Polk
- Lyndon B. Johnson
- Andrew Jackson
- James Monroe
- James Madison
- John Adams
- Barack Obama
- Bill Clinton
- William McKinley
- John Quincy Adams
- Grover Cleveland
- George H.W. Bush
- Ulysses S. Grant
- Gerald Ford
- William Howard Taft
- Jimmy Carter
- Calvin Coolidge
- Chester A. Arthur
- Richard Nixon
- James A. Garfield
- Martin Van Buren
- Rutherford B. Hayes
- Zachary Taylor
- Benjamin Harrison
- Herbert Hoover
- John Tyler
- Millard Fillmore
- George W. Bush
- Andrew Johnson
- William Henry Harrison
- Warren G. Harding
- Franklin Pierce
- James Buchanan
As a nation, do we honor our best presidents more than the others? Do we ever leave anyone out? Do we ever give extra credit to presidents who don’t deserve it?
One of my business mentors once told me that if you want your people to know what you care about, write it on your wall. The parallel for a nation might be the words and faces it puts on its currency. The analog for a city or state might be the names it give its streets.
If we ranked past presidents by the number of circulating bills and coins with their faces on them, here’s what the top 15 would look like:
- Abraham Lincoln (penny + $5 bill = ~175 billion copies of his face circulating)
- George Washington (quarter + $1 bill = ~11 billion)
- Ben Franklin ($100 bill = ~9 billion)
- Andrew Jackson ($20 bill = ~7.7 billion)
- Alexander Hamilton ($10 bill = ~1.8 billion)
- Ulysses Grant ($50 bill = ~1.5 billion)
- Thomas Jefferson (nickel + $2 bill = ~1.1 billion)
- Sacagawea (dollar coin = ~300 million)
- Franklin D. Roosevelt (dime = ~150 million)
- John F. Kennedy (50 cent piece = ~3.4 million)
- William McKinley ($500 bill = ~250 thousand)
- Grover Cleveland ($1,000 bill = ~150 thousand)
- James Madison ($5,000 bill = ~350)
- Salmon P. Chase ($10,000 bill = ~345)
- Woodrow Wilson ($100,000 bill = unknown)
There are a few popular people on U.S. currency who never held the office of president. (My man Hamilton definitely should have been president. Franklin was too old for the job, but we all know he would have crushed it. Sacagawea was a cool choice for the dollar coin, but Salmon Chase was just the guy in charge of printing the money for a while.)
Here’s how currency frequency compares to each president’s proficiency at the job:
Why underperformers like Grant and Cleveland show up on so much currency while top presidents like Truman and Teddy are noticeably absent could be attributed to the recency factor. We have a habit of redesigning and reissuing currency from time to time, but we haven’t put a new president on anything substantial—with the exception of Kennedy—in decades. But still, Polk and Monroe were better than McKinley and Cleveland and Grant, and they’re not represented at all. Also of note is Jackson’s outsize popularity despite his only slightly above average performance as president.
Street names are where things get really interesting. I ran a few hundred queries on a street name database and determined not only that 2nd Street is the most popular street name in America (it’s because many 1st streets are called Main or something else), but U.S. presidents are the most popular human names given to roads.
Here’s the most popular presidential street name in each state:
*Note: We’re giving presidents the benefit of doubt and assuming that any street with their last name is named for them. This is probably generous to presidents like Andrew or Lyndon Johnson, but it’s the best we can do, and also becomes an interesting study in inadvertent credit. Second: Some presidents have the same last name. We have no choice but to combine them. Finally: My data source counts each zip code or sub zip code as a different street. So these numbers skew in favor of streets that serve larger populations. That’s okay, because a longer streets in a populous area is probably more important.
Washington is the most popular president-named street by a landslide. According to our composite historians’ rankings, he was the third-best president. He likely gets outsize credit in our street names because he was the first president and plays an integral role in the American story. And many historians rank him as the best anyway, so we won’t complain about his name on our streets. It’s interesting, however, to see the love for Van Buren in Arizona, and the South’s love for Jackson.
That love is more apparent when you look at the second most popular presidential street name per state:
When you add up all the presidential streets nationwide, you get an interesting hierarchy…
… which doesn’t quite map to how good each president was:
(I think it’s safe to assume that duplicate street/president names—if they truly are named for the president and not a generic surname—are more likely to be named for the better president. E.g., the popularity of “Johnson” is probably because of Lyndon Johnson and not Andrew Johnson, who was the fifth worst ever.)
We carved Teddy, Abe, Thomas, and George (each a top-five president) into a mountainside. We named airports after Reagan and Kennedy (each a top-10 president), but also Bush and Ford (bottom 50 percent). And we named a whole lot of streets after disappointments like Harrison and Taylor instead of Truman and Eisenhower.
If dollars and streets are good proxies, it appears that we have elevated Madison and Jackson above their deserved place in history. And we’ve cheated guys like Polk and the Roosevelts out of some credit. Like I said, time has a funny way of shaping memory.