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Top Presidents Ranked pt. 1

Published in Blog on August 23, 2023 by Jakob Fay

In 234 years, a mere 45 men have held this distinctly American office. Some great, others embarrassingly bad, each, in his own way, represents the country and its people. 

The intricate tapestry of United States history finds an inseparable weave with the chronicles of the presidency. If one were to encapsulate the nation's narrative succinctly, it could be aptly conveyed through glimpses into the lives of the 45 Commanders-in-Chief who have been chosen to steer its course. These leaders have navigated every crest of triumph and trough of disappointment alongside the nation, etching their distinct marks upon the annals of time.

Elected to ride the undulating waves of success and setback with the people who selected them, the presidents, ideally, boast both commonness and distinction. That we handpick these heads of state from among the people—not an aristocracy or familial line of succession—is deeply and unmistakably American. Yet, we also bestow upon them an almost contradictory reverence. The complicated balance between our innate distrust of powerful men and big government and our equally prevalent hero worship is also unmistakably American. 

For instance, Lincoln, today, rules the hearts of his countrymen from a colossal throne of marble; yet he described his childhood as the “short and simple annals of the poor." Grant enjoyed “a meteoric rise from obscurity,” greater even than that of Lincoln, one historian argued, but is now interred in the nation’s largest mausoleum. Even the illustrious George Washington duly came from among the people and often shrank away from liberal offers of power.

To some it may seem paradoxical—and I suppose, to some extent, it is—but to us, this jarring union between lowliness and loftiness is quintessentially and beautifully American. We the People of the United States possess a strange affinity for men like us, but slightly better than us.

While it's true that a number of our presidents have, at times, cast shadows upon the stature of the office, many more have substantially enhanced the value and prestige of the globally acclaimed institution that is the American presidency. Here, in this series, we’ll unpack my five personal favorite presidents and why they rank so highly on my list.

5. Ronald Reagan

The 40th president of the United States barely edges out James Madison on my list of top five presidents. Once the most popular modern president, Reagan has, over the past few years, decreased in favorability, with some historians now ranking him (absurdly) below Bill Clinton. Nevertheless, he still holds a special place in the hearts of many historically-minded conservatives. Why? Because he made many of us conservatives.

Reagan was the last president to intentionally and effectively exposit what it meant to be a member of his party. As a one-time Democrat himself, he seemed to have a thorough grasp of the ideological underpinnings of conservatism and how to articulate them persuasively, something subsequent Republican presidents failed to do or never even tried. One need only delve into his speeches, such as "A Time For Choosing," his First Inaugural Address, and his "Evil Empire" speech at the National Association of Evangelicals—all of which are exceptional rhetorical pieces—to grasp the cogency of his worldview. At the very least, these speeches provide an understanding of his perspective, offering Americans the opportunity to make an informed evaluation of his politics, even if their conclusions differ.

This, coupled with the general success of Reagan’s principles during his presidency, indeed led many to embrace the 40th president’s worldview. The Great Communicator won the nation over with his common sense, wit, and admirable leadership. But above all, he won us over with his unshakable faith. Democrat John Kerry was right to call him “one of our greatest optimists”—Reagan genuinely believed in America and that the American people, with God’s help, would triumph. 

As he emotionally expressed in his First Inaugural Address: “The crisis we are facing today does not require of us the kind of sacrifice… so many thousands… were called upon to make. It does require, however, our best effort and our willingness to believe in ourselves and to believe in our capacity to perform great deeds, to believe that together with God's help we can and will resolve the problems which now confront us. “

“And after all,” he concluded, “why shouldn't we believe that? We are Americans.”

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