Every year, two well-known institutions, C-SPAN and Siena College, rank all of our presidents from best to worst. They do this by asking historians from both the left and right of the political spectrum to do the work. The idea is to get a fair and balanced result.
I thought it might be interesting to publish the rankings of all the presidents who at one time or another spent time on the East End. So here they are.
In 1757, as a young colonel in the U.S. Army, George Washington stayed at the William Booth Inn in Greenport (then known as Stirling) while traveling from New York to Boston. In 1790, as president, he made another trip out to the East End. He wanted to personally thank the group of spies who worked for him during the revolution. He exchanged letters with them. But he had never met them. He was a frail man of 58 when he came out that second time, not on horseback as we always remember him, but in a horse-drawn carriage. His goal was Setauket, just adjacent to Stony Brook, where the members of this Culper Spy Ring lived. His meetings in Setauket were joyous. Afterwards, he went back to the City the way he came.
In 1898, Col. Theodore Roosevelt lived in Montauk from mid-August to early October, as part of the 29,500-man American army that lived in a vast tent camp to recover from tropical illnesses after triumphantly throwing the Spanish out of Cuba. He was a war hero and not yet president. He is ranked this year No. 4.
Thomas Jefferson is ranked No. 5. He was the main author of the Declaration of Independence and was our president from 1801 to 1809. In 1791, as secretary of state, he came out East to visit prominent citizen Ezra L’Hommedieu at his home in Southold, then to go see William Floyd, Long Island’s signer of the declaration who had a mansion at Mastic Beach. While there, Jefferson sought out and met with a woman who was a member of the Unkechaug Indian Nation that was then in decline, but who still knew the tribe’s Native language. Jefferson transcribed much of this language in order to preserve it for posterity. In 1809, in the last year of his presidency, he put the transcription in a trunk with other presidential papers that he ordered shipped back to his Monticello home in Virginia. It never arrived. It was soon learned that a stevedore had stolen the trunk while it was being loaded aboard ship, and finding nothing of value inside, dumped it overboard into the James River. Jefferson subsequently wrote a letter to a friend stating that he hoped the thief, now on trial, would be hanged. It’s an extraordinary letter. But it never happened.
James Madison, No. 7, then a congressman, from Virginia after overseeing the creation of the U.S. Constitution, accompanied Jefferson on his visit to Floyd’s house in 1791. Madison became a very effective President in 1809, declared war on England for impressing American sailors at sea (recruiting them by force), leading to a great outpouring of American patriotism.
Before he became president in 1961, Jack Kennedy, No. 10, married Jackie Bouvier, a young woman from East Hampton. It was in 1953. There’s a photograph of them sailing in what many believe to be Gardiner’s Bay. But I know of no other record of his visiting his in-laws here.
Bill Clinton became president in 1993 and is ranked No. 15. He balanced the federal budget and was a master at negotiating compromise. He and his wife Hillary have rented summer homes in the Hamptons for years. He’s umpired three times at the annual Artist-Writers softball game, most recently in 2021.
William McKinley, No. 20, elected president in 1897, visited war hero Roosevelt in Montauk in September 1898. McKinley led the country through a great economic boom while he was president and was very popular. When he was assassinated in Buffalo in 1901, the man he had chosen to become his vice president in 1900, Roosevelt, became president.
Richard Nixon, No. 29, was a frequent guest at Gurney’s Inn in Montauk prior to becoming president. He wrote one of his Republican Presidential nomination acceptance speeches here. He’s praised for opening up China to the outside world and has been criticized for authorizing burglars to break into his political opponents’ headquarters and plant listening devices so he would know his opponents’ plans. After being caught lying about it, he resigned in 1974. He is the only president who ever resigned.
Chester Arthur, No. 34, was a frequent summer visitor to the Hamptons, keeping a summer White House in Sag Harbor during the 1880s. He’s criticized for enacting America’s first anti-immigration laws, refusing to allow Chinese people to become American citizens for 10 years.
After President John Tyler’s wife Letitia died in the second year of his presidency in 1842, he courted and married a young East Hampton woman named Julia Gardiner. He was 54. She was 23. Tyler visited his in-laws here. A terrible president whose views got him thrown out of his own political party, he served only one term. And when the Civil War broke out in 1861, he, a slave owner, became a senator for the Confederacy. He’s ranked No. 37 of our 44 presidents.
Donald Trump, president from 2017 to 2021 and ranked No. 42, is criticized for withdrawing from the Paris Agreement designed to stop global warming, threatening to withdraw from NATO, blocking immigration and fomenting an insurrection in Washington after claiming he’d won a second term when he did not. Before his presidency, Trump, a wealthy man, created a helicopter service that shuttled visitors between Manhattan and East Hampton. He is the only president to have been impeached twice.
And who is ranked as our worst president at No. 45? Andrew Johnson, a Southerner who became vice president in 1864 on the ticket with Abraham Lincoln. After Lincoln was shot, President Johnson took over and looked the other way as the Ku Klux Klan in the South returned to terrorizing and lynching African Americans, thus reversing much of what Lincoln accomplished earlier. Johnson also was impeached, and just barely survived — by one vote — a proposal to remove him from office.
Johnson never set foot on eastern Long Island.