The historical evaluation of the presidents of the United States of America and their relative ranking in the pantheons of the nation’s leaders has always been a matter of great debate and controversy, attracting a lot of attention from historians as well as political aficionados. The spill over of this interest into popular culture is exemplified by the enduring popularity of the Mount Rushmore as a symbol of presidential greatness.
While a lot of historians, journalists, academicians and researchers have been liberal in providing their views on the relative greatness of each of the individual presidents, the memorability of the presidents is one area that has not evoked that much of interest. In 2014, a study was conducted by HL Roediger III and K.A. De Soto that asked sample participants to recall as many presidents as they could. The study which had also been conducted separately in the last three decades, allowed the researchers to find out how the collective memory behaved when it came to remembering past presidents.
Fortunately, with Google publishing the search interests related to various topics via Google Trends, it has become much easier to find out which US presidents people have been searching for since 2004, the year Google came into being. And it is also possible to compare the search interest in the various US presidents since that year. Given that internet has become ubiquitous in US, the search interest in Google may be considered a decent proxy for the memorability of the respective presidents.
Based on the relative search interest generated in Google since 2004, the following is the ranking of the Presidents:
The results show that John F Kennedy is still the President who drives the most traffic in search engines, even after more than 50 years of his assassination. He is followed by a mixture of recent high profile presidents (Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon) and presidents who are universally acknowledged to be among the all time greats (Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Franklin D Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt). At the other end of the spectrum are a bunch of forgotten presidents who served mostly for one terms in the middle and the late 19th Century.
Note that the names of George W Bush and Barack Obama have not been considered here as both of them were presidents during considerable portion of the period of which search results have been considered. Since they would have been making news on daily basis during their presidencies, thus spiking up search interests, it would not be fair to include them for the purpose of comparison.
The results thrown up by Google Trends are in close agreement with the results of the study conducted by Roediger III and De Soto. A comparison of the rankings as per the two different methods has been showed in the following chart:
A few observations from a first glance at the list:
- The memorability of a president is definitely impacted by the perception of his greatness. Presidents who are considered among the greats are likely to be remembered by more number of people, long after they are gone, compared to presidents who have been mediocre or even presidents who have performed abysmally. This is reflected in the following chart which plots the ranking of the presidents as per the Google Search data with the ranking accorded by historians (the historians’ ranking has been taken from the composite list compiled by Nate Silver in 2012):
- Even though there are cases when the recency effect is prominent, there is actually not much of a correlation between the memorability of a president and the number of years that have lapsed since he was the president. The following is a chart that plots the relative ranking of a president in the Google Trends as against a variable that shows the number of presidencies he is removed from the current president (For example, in case of Bill Clinton, the variable would be 2 since he is the president who preceded George W Bush who in turn was the president before Barack Obama).
The plot essentially shows that there is no relationship between the two; meaning that if you are truly great, people may remember you regardless of the number of years that have lapsed (which the high ranking of Washington and Jefferson attest to); on the other hand, if you are just average, you may be forgotten in a span of a few decades (as is true for George HW Bush or Gerald Ford).
- The period of 64 years between 1837 and 1901 was a graveyard of presidential ambitions, as apart from the glorious exception of Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865), the period was marked by a series of mostly one term presidents (and presidents who even failed to complete single terms) whose contribution to the progress of the country were either forgettable or better be forgotten. The last thirteen places in our ranking are occupied by presidents from that era. The highest ranked president from that period is Ulysses S Grant (at the nineteenth rank) who doubtless benefited from also having a stellar military record, being the only president in that period to serve two consecutive terms and also having his face on the fifty dollar bill.
- One president who unfortunately got stuck in that jinxed period and has also been forgotten was James K Polk. Polk is generally one of the better regarded presidents with a ranking of 11th in terms of greatness. However, he is also the 31st most remembered president in our list. The unfortunate President Polk definitely has a legitimate claim to be the least known great president.
- If you want the ages to remember you as a president, serving a single term definitely does not help. The highest ranked single term president in our list is Jimmy Carter at #11 (of course after JFK who has to be considered a special case scenario on account of the enduring interest in his unfulfilled promise and unfortunate assassination). In all, there are just five one term presidents in our top 20 list, four of whom have served after the Second World War. John Adams at #13 is the only one term president from the 19th century, who is still remembered by a significant number of people. Conversely, Calvin Coolidge at #27 is the lowest ranked president who has served two non-consecutive terms. The last 14 places are all occupied by single term presidents, except Grover Cleveland at #30, who was the only President to have been elected as part of two non-consecutive administrations.
- Till date, there have been nine vice-presidents who were directly elected to the president’s office without election, because the preceding president either died in office or had to resign. There were four such instances in the 19th century (John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Chester Arthur) and five such instances in the 20th century (Teddy Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson and Gerald Ford). It turns out the 20th century vice presidents were much luckier than their 19th century counterparts. While all four vice presidents of the 19th century had rather lacklustre tenures in the Oval Office and have now been consigned to the dustbins of history, at least three of their counterparts in the 20th century (Roosevelt, Truman and Johnson) are still fondly remembered and have genuine claim to greatness.
- The five earliest presidents who were also among the founding fathers are still remembered more than the average president. Except for James Monroe who comes at #28 in the list.
- Donald Trump has generated around 2.5 times the search interest generated by JFK, the highest president on the list.
- The Harrison family was not particularly lucky when it came to presidents. William Henry Harrison who became president in 1941 remained so only for 31 days, before dying from pneumonia. He was the first president to die in office and his tenure was the shortest presidency ever. But at least he had that claim to fame. Benjamin Harrison, his grandson, is the least known president in history. There is absolutely nothing memorable about Benjamin Harrison. He had a generic name and a generic surname. He was just another Republican president in the long line of Republican presidents who followed Lincoln. He had a standard 19th century bearded president face. His presidency was also pretty bland, apart from a few debates on the increasing tariff. He was a single term president and his presidency did not coincide with any epoch making event in the nation’s history. The only thing unique about him was that he won and then lost an election against the same guy i.e. Grover Cleveland. Cleveland by the way is the only president to have been elected to non-consecutive terms. But such is the curse of the Harrison family that even Cleveland has been forgotten by most Americans and ranks pretty low in the search results.
- Spare a thought for Chester Arthur as well. Yes, Chester Arthur, the President with the most fancy name and the most fancy facial facial hair in history. The President who went against his supporters to implement Civil Service reform. The President whose tenor was described by Mark Twain,albeit a little too prematurely, as “it would be hard to better President Arthur’s administration.” That guy appears the second last on the list.
- The average Democratic President generates more searches than the average Republican President. But this is partly because the Democrats did not have too many presidents during the 19th century era of forgettable presidents (i.e. between 1837 and 1901). The Whigs, on the other hand, have all four of their presidents from that era, all four of whom rank among the 10 least remembered presidents.
- Poor, old, bland Gerald Ford is already #20 on the list, the post war president with the lowest ranking on the list. Being the first president to have not been elected (either as a President or a Vice President) did nothing to boost his fame. Even the fact that Ford is the only president to have replaced another living president in the middle of the latter’s tenure could not make him famous. Both his predecessor and successor, by the way, are ranked among the top 11.
- Harrison Ford is probably more famous than Benjamin Harrison and Gerald Ford put together.