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Is Mount Rushmore Statistically Accurate?

Monday is Presidents Day — officially Washington’s Birthday — and there are few monuments as presidential as the Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota’s Black Hills. The massive sculpture, which was started in 1927, features the faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. But which four leaders really deserve to be immortalized in the massive rock? Since we’re FiveThirtyEight, we’ve turned to the pollsters. And though Franklin Roosevelt would be a contender now, the head sculptor got it right.

This belief is based off historians’ rankings. Since 2009, three surveys, from C-SPAN, Siena College and the United States Presidency Centre (USPC), have polled historians, asking them to order the U.S. presidents from best to worst. The results have been fairly consistent.

Franklin Roosevelt 3 1 1 1
Abraham Lincoln 1 3 2 2
George Washington 2 4 3 3
Theodore Roosevelt 4 2 5 4
Thomas Jefferson 7 5 4 5
Harry Truman 5 9 7 6
Woodrow Wilson 9 8 6 7
Dwight Eisenhower 8 10 10 8
John Kennedy 6 11 15 9
James Monroe 14 7 13 10

Lincoln and Washington are, not surprisingly, among the top four presidents in all three polls. Theodore Roosevelt has been among the top five in each of them, and Jefferson has been among the top seven in every survey. Aggregated together, the top four presidents who had served by 1927 are the ones on Mount Rushmore.

The foresight of head sculptor Gutzon Borglum to have picked the four best presidents possible shouldn’t be undersold. It may have been obvious to stick Lincoln, Jefferson and Washington on Rushmore, but the choice of Theodore Roosevelt was far less so. Roosevelt had only been out of office for 18 years when the project began, and it was probably difficult at the time to see how someone who had only been elected to one term and had not served during a time of major war would be remembered as great. Andrew Jackson, who was put on the $20 bill in 1928, might have been a more evident choice. In historian and author Arthur Schlesinger’s first historians’ poll in 1948 and his second in 1962, Jackson and Woodrow Wilson, president during World War I, ranked ahead of Teddy.

Why was Roosevelt chosen? It’s difficult to discount the fact that Borglum knew him personally. There’s also a belief that then-President Calvin Coolidge wanted two Republicans on Mount Rushmore.

But Franklin D. Roosevelt has since joined the four Rushmore presidents in historical greatness; he’s consistently rated among the top three commanders in chief. So, if Bolgrum were working today and could only feature four presidents, who would get the ax?

The most likely choice is Jefferson. In choosing FDR over the third president, Bolgrum would be switching one Democrat for another. Jefferson also rates the lowest of the original four on Mount Rushmore in the aggregated president’s rankings. And in polls of the public taken by Gallup and Washington College in the past 10 years, he was rated the lowest of the original four. Lastly, consider the controversy Jefferson has sparked centuries after his presidency — he was clearly racist — and we can make a good case that he might be gone if Mount Rushmore were built today.

Overall, though, Mount Rushmore is backed up by the stats. It’s set in stone that its presidents are among the best four we’ve had.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.