Robert W. Merry
We break down why.
More than any other president, Lincoln left behind a nation transformed. All the great presidents set the country upon a new course at a time when the old direction no longer inspired confidence among citizens and voters. Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt—all fulfilled this necessity of presidential greatness; all defined the country anew by fashioning fresh political idioms that pulled together new political coalitions, thus allowing the country to move forward into new eras. But the Lincoln transformation was the most profound and most long-lasting. Thus does he get that top slot in nearly every poll of academics with the temerity to rate the presidents. Thus also does he continue to occupy a special locus in the hearts and minds of his countrymen down to our day.
Whenever academics and scholars tickle their fancy by putting forth yet another poll of historians on presidential rankings, there is little doubt about which president will top the list—Abraham Lincoln. In the numerous such polls executed since Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. pioneered the genre in 1948 for Life magazine, Lincoln has come out as number one in nearly all of them. Of the seven surveys I pulled together for my 2012 book on the subject, Where They Stand, the Illinois rail-splitter was judged the nation’s greatest president in six of them. In the seventh (a 2005 Wall Street Journal poll), George Washington came out on top, with Lincoln in second place. (Franklin Roosevelt almost always occupies the number three slot.)
(This first appeared in 2015.)