Dear Dr. Scribblerprez:
How long does it take after a president is out of office for placement in the list of presidents from the best to the worst? Who makes that decision?
A president does not need to be out of office to be ranked. Two respected organizations made best-to-worst presidential rankings in 2018. Both ranked Donald Trump with his predecessors.
Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Franklin D. Roosevelt ranked at the top in both surveys. Lancaster’s James Buchanan ranked 43rd — next to worst — in both. And Trump was down there with him.
The American Political Science Association surveyed 200 political scientists. They rated Trump last among 44 U.S. presidents, just below Buchanan. A poll of 157 presidential scholars by Siena College in Loudonville, New York, ranked Trump 42nd, just above Buchanan and Andrew Johnson.
While Buchanan improved his presidential reputation for almost the first time since he was vilified for coddling Southern slave owners and secessionists before the Civil War, Lancaster may find that its only president has not permanently lost his lowliest status.
It takes time to fully evaluate presidents because additional information about their presidencies may emerge years later. For example, Dwight D. Eisenhower once ranked considerably lower than he has in recent years. Same with Ullysses S. Grant. Some presidents have gone the other way.
So who makes these decisions?
Mostly historians, who are supposed to know what they are talking about. Journalists and other groups occasionally create less prestigious rankings.
Arthur Schlesinger Jr. conducted the nation’s first formal presidential poll of 55 fellow historians in 1948. Lincoln, Washington and FDR ranked 1, 2 and 3, establishing that pattern. The worst president in Schlesinger’s poll: Warren G. Harding; The runners-up: Grant, Pierce and Buchanan.
Buchanan’s consistent position as a bottom dweller among those who rank presidents is not going to change after 73 years. The 2018 polls suggest he may have a new competitor; but it’s going to take a while — and possibly a presidential trial — to determine how that turns out.
When I was a youth, I often heard the expression: “Lancaster is the Oldest Inland City.” Haven’t heard it in recent years. Is it true?
Lloyd K. Mosemann II
Not true. But old errors are hard to kill.
The first local newspaper reference to Lancaster as the “oldest inland city” in the United States is in 1908. That mistake remained on the city’s website until recent years.
How did the error occur?
“Oldest inland town” appeared on those old Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission markers, now removed, which stood at the city’s entrances. Most people assumed the designation was correct.
A few days ago, the Scribbler found the state’s rationale for the mistake. In a 1950 newspaper article, a representative of the museum commission explained that “Lancaster was the oldest town to be founded in the interior of the United States and not located on any waterway communication with the seacoast.”
The water-related part of that tortured sentence did not fit on the signs, so only “oldest inland town”' remained.
Santa Fe, New Mexico; San Antonio, Texas; dozens of places in New England and New York; and scores of other inland towns are older than Lancaster. Williamsburg, Virginia, is much older than Lancaster.
Lancaster seems to have been the nation’s largest inland town in 1790, according to the first U.S. census. While that description does not have quite the same cachet, it has the advantage of being accurate.
Jack Brubaker, retired from the LNP staff, writes "The Scribbler'' column every Sunday. He welcomes comments and contributions at email@example.com.