This part of the list should be the cream of the crop, and for the most part it is. It includes all four presidents featured on Mount Rushmore (though they aren’t the top 4 presidents) and the bulk of presidents from the 20th century (it helps when one of the guys served for 12 years). Unlike the previous entries in this series, these guys will be presented in my personal order, though there is plenty of room for discussion based on personal taste (or distaste, as is the case with Thomas Jefferson and my younger sister).
Below are my personal rankings of the Top 10 presidents in U.S. history, starting with the man that is held personally responsible for our country in the first place:
10. Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809) – Thomas Jefferson was the man principally responsible for the drafting of the Declaration of Independence. But even that was not enough for him to be immediately elected president, something that seems to have irritated him. He finally became president in 1801, completed the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, and generally spearheaded the young country forward. He should be commended for keeping us out of the European wars so early in our country’s life, but he should also be held accountable for causing some of the early political divisiveness of our country, bringing about the political parties that George Washington had warned about.
9. Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) – Wilson was elected on the promise of keeping the U.S. out of World War I. He ultimately acquiesced and joined the fight, ensuring victory for the Allied powers and peace in the world (for a little while at least). He was the leader of the early progressive movement, a movement that FDR would greatly expand a decade later in response to the Great Depression. One of these progressive policies was the nation’s first income tax, finally giving another source of revenue to the government. Other laws limiting child labor and the length of the work day followed. Still, he did nothing about the “Jim Crow” laws of the south, and was hobbled by a stroke the past few years of his presidency.
8. John F. Kennedy (1961-1963) – Kennedy seems to be slightly overrated, especially considering his short time in office because of his assassination. Nevertheless, he accomplished a lot of good things in his brief time as president, even if a lot of the victories would be felt by other presidents. He challenged Americans to get to the moon, and focused on funding those explorations. He stared down the aggression of the USSR during the Cuban Missile Crisis, achieving victory without firing a single bullet. His legacy will largely remain one of hope for what would have happened and buoyed the presidencies of later presidents by what he was able to accomplish in a little more than 1,000 days in office.
7. Harry S. Truman (1945-1953) – Truman took over as president after the death of FDR, and was responsible for the decision to drop two nuclear weapons in Japan to end World War II. He held an ambitious post-war Soviet Russia in check via the Truman Doctrine, and also implemented a plan for post-war Europe deemed the Marshall Plan. These actions helped secure reelection in 1948, and domestically, he continued many of FDR’s New Deal policies, proposing the “Fair Deal” before a joint session of Congress in January 1949. However, he left office almost universally despised due to perceived corruption in his administration and the stalemate in Korea, and decided to retire to Missouri instead of seeking reelection in 1952.
*Note: Originally, Truman was ranked higher until someone pointed out that he had left office with terrible approval ratings and not the acclaim that I had misread. That said, dropping the atomic bombs was a huge decision, and his plans for the post-war world still keep him in the top 10 for the time being.
6. Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969) – Johnson became president after the very public assassination of John F. Kennedy, and set out to provide “A Great Society” for all Americans. No longer content to wait for change in the American South, he continued the work of Kennedy in getting the Civil Rights Act passed, immediately undoing many of the racially based laws in the South, though at the same time causing more unrest. He provided healthcare to millions of elderly people, adding Medicare protection to the Social Security Act. On the negative side, he failed to prevent escalation of the action in Vietnam, and while the war was mostly fought by his successors, his legacy is tarnished by the U.S. involvement and ultimate loss in the country.
5. Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961) – After leading the Allies to victory in World War II, Eisenhower ascended to the White House and brought the same level of success to the Oval Office. He brought about peace in the short-lived Korean conflict, an armistice that remains in place to this day. He challenged Russia about nuclear weapons, and continually pushed for peace across the globe after World War II and Korea. On the domestic front, he was responsible for the Interstate Highway System, enable commerce and travel around the country in a more efficient manner. Upon leaving office in 1961, he warned of the growing “military-industrial complex,” a warning that has seemed to go unheeded.
4. Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) – Teddy Roosevelt expanded on the popularity of the man he replaced – William McKinley – and took the progressive movement by the horns in the early part of the 20th Century. He pushed for the construction of the Panama Canal, quickening the trade between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. He subscribed to a favorite proverb regarding diplomacy – “speak softly and carry a big stick” – and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work ending tensions between Russia and Japan in 1906. Domestically, he was the first president to consider the conservation of America’s natural beauty, forming the US Forest Service and declaring multiple national parks, monuments, and sanctuary areas using the American Antiquities Act. All in all, he protected over 230 million acres of public land during his presidency.
3. Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945) – A distant cousin of Teddy Roosevelt, FDR also pursued progressive politics, though from the opposite party. He was elected in the midst of the Great Depression and set about to get America back on track immediately, starting massive public works projects employing millions of people. Among the work completed was running power lines across much of the west, providing stable electricity to people that lived far outside of populated cities. To aid in the recovery from the Great Depression, FDR instituted the New Deal, a plan for the American people that included a safety net for everyone in many aspects of their daily life. He also vowed to keep the U.S. out of the wars in Europe, only entering the fray when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on “a date which will live in infamy.” For his strength at leading the nation in two different trying times in U.S. history, FDR is elevated to this lofty position in these rankings.
2. George Washington (1789-1797) – The first president of our nation is always properly given credit for the great things that he did. If not for Lincoln, he would most likely be rated as the top president ever. He resisted two different factions within his cabinet calling for the young nation’s entry into conflict between France and Britain, preserving the country’s young independence. His lasting legacy will always be his quiet and resolute strength as the nation’s first executive, and that alone is enough to rank him this high. Nobody had ever been “president” before, and only a handful of men since could claim to challenge his success. Like Eisenhower, he left office warning of something that nobody listened to him about, with the country splitting into multiple factions and parties before he had even retired to Mount Vernon.
1. Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865) – We finally get to the man that inspired this whole thing. The life, and story, of Lincoln has been told many times, and I’m not going to go into much depth in this post because I could write thousands of words on him separately. The Emancipation Proclamation, a big thing that happened and that was depicted in the film Lincoln, was but one legacy of his presidency. One of the greatest unanswerable questions in our nation’s history is what would have happened had Lincoln not been felled by that assassin’s bullet in 1865. As we learned (briefly) about his successor, the post-Civil War era in America was not in line with the views of President Lincoln. Lincoln is the best for his strength through the Civil War, and to me, it’s really no question.
And there you have it. All 44 presidents kind of ranked, and it only took about 6,000 words total to do so. I’ll explore Lincoln in greater depth as I finish up the month of Lincoln, so please be sure to come back in the days ahead to read another couple thousand words about Lincoln.
Thanks for reading. Until next time…