Professors weigh in on our nation’s best commanders-in-chief

Presidents’ Day is a time to honor the presidents who have led our country and to reflect on the legacy they have left, or will leave, behind. Celebrated annually on the third Monday in February, the holiday is more formally known as Washington’s Birthday, in reference to the first president of the United States.

In honor of the holiday, three professors shared their favorite presidents with the Rover.

Sotirios Barber, Professor of Constitutional Law and Politics, first pointed out what he sees as the difficulty of choosing one president as a favorite.

“Because different presidents faced different challenges of great magnitude, comparisons are unfair,” Barber said.

Barber continued on, however, to select three presidents he believes were among the best.

“I agree with probably most constitutional scholars in naming Washington, Lincoln, and [Franklin D. Roosevelt]. I think Washington’s presidency was essential for establishing the Constitution and the presidencies of Lincoln and FDR for saving it from different threats.”

Richard Garnett, Associate Dean and Professor of Law, took the approach of ruling out a number of presidents to begin with.

“First, I’m ruling out Presidents Washington and Lincoln who are, in my view, our two greatest presidents. Next, I’m also ruling out all those who served as president during my lifetime. Third, I’m not considering two very important and great men—James Madison and Dwight Eisenhower—whose accomplishments are outstanding but whose presidencies don’t really seem to stand out.”  

Garnett continued, “All that said, I think my current favorite is John Adams. He is under-appreciated now, just as he was during his life. He was a respected and courageous lawyer, a man of deep faith, and a loving husband to his brilliant wife, Abigail Adams. He was instrumental in the movement for independence and, of course, helped to draft the Declaration.”

Garnett noted Adams’ leadership in the Continental Congress, the role he played in securing financial and military aid during the Revolutionary War, and his insights on the dangers and excesses of the French Revolution. He also mentioned Adams’ nomination of the “Great Chief Justice,” John Marshall.

Acknowledging Adams’ approval of the Alien and Sedition Acts, now considered unconstitutional overreach by most, Garnett said, “No one is perfect!”

Finally, Vincent Phillip Muñoz, Tocqueville Associate Professor of Religion and Public Life, had a simple answer, agreeing with both of his colleagues on who tops the list of greatest presidents.

“Lincoln (with George Washington a very close second). Because he saved the nation and its soul.”

Barber, Garnett, and Muñoz’s responses echo common sentiments of the American people regarding the presidents.

In 2014, Brandon Rottinghaus of the University of Houston and Justin S. Vaughn of Boise State University conducted a survey of 162 members of the American Political Science Association’s Presidents and Executive Politics section. They asked these experts in the American presidency to rate the U.S. presidents on a scale from zero to 100.

Coming in the highest with a score of 95 was Lincoln, followed closely by Washington in second and Franklin Roosevelt in third. Also in the top 10 were Theodore Roosevelt, Jefferson, Truman, Eisenhower, Clinton, Jackson, and Wilson.

As for the presidents ranked lowest by those surveyed, Buchanan, Harding, Johnson, Pierce, and Harrison made up the bottom five.

These findings are largely reflective of the results of other surveys conducted throughout the years. Lincoln, Washington, and Franklin Roosevelt consistently appear in the top three, while the top 10 has typically varied only slightly from study to study.  

Matt Connell is a freshman studying economics and political science. His favorite presidents include, but are certainly not limited to, Washington, Jefferson, and Coolidge. You can reach him at