Determining a president’s place in the history of American politics is no easy task. For obvious reasons, partisan politics often influence how one views the past and presidential legacies are no different. There are, however, certain presidents that have established themselves as important figures, despite partisan viewpoints. One may disagree with the policies of Ronald Reagan or Franklin Roosevelt, but denying their importance in the history of American politics would be difficult to argue.
We’ve compiled a list of the 25 most revered presidents in the history of the United States. The list comes from an aggregation of 17 surveys conducted over the last 60 years, each one rating the presidents according to their importance. The surveys reflect the opinions of prominent scholars and can be found in Wikipedia’s entry on “Historical Rankings of Presidents of the United States.”
Rutherford B. Hayes served as the 19th president of the United States, holding office from 1877 to 1881. As the successor to Ulysses Grant, Hayes presided over the end of the Reconstruction era and ultimately did not seek reelection. His election in 1877 is considered one of the most contested in the history of presidential elections.
Martin Van Buren served as the eighth president of the United States. Having previously served as vice president under Andrew Jackson, Van Buren was elected in 1836 but only served one full term. During his presidency, the country experienced an economic crisis that Van Buren and his cabinet struggled to correct. His presidency is notable for attempting to curb the expansion of slavery by blocking the annexation of Texas, and Van Buren’s stringent fiscal conservative policies.
George H. W. Bush served as the 41st president of the United States. Having served previously as vice president under Ronald Reagan, Bush was elected into office in 1989. Though he only served as president for one term, Bush presided over the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Gulf War. Though his military and diplomatic endeavors were largely seen as successful, the struggling economy under his presidency ultimately led to a failed bid at reelection.
William Howard Taft served as the 27th president of the United States. Elected in 1909, Taft served only one full term. Elected as part of Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive initiatives, Taft quickly soured to politics and lost favor among those who first supported him. Despite his newfound reputation as a conservative, Taft’s administration was notable for initiating 80 antitrust suits as well as other more Progressive initiatives such as promoting the direct election of Senators. Taft is also the only American to serve as both president and a Supreme Court Justice.
William Jefferson Clinton served as the 42nd president of the United States. Elected in 1992, Clinton became notable for becoming the first Democrat to be elected to a second term since Franklin D. Roosevelt. He presided over the longest period of American peacetime and economic growth in the nation’s history. Clinton is also one of two presidents in the history of America to be impeached by the House of Representatives, which occurred during his second term as the result of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. He was later acquitted by the Senate and served the remainder of his second term. He completed his presidency with the highest approval ratings of any president since World War II.
Serving as the 25th president of the United States, William McKinley was assassinated only six months into his second term. His presidency is most notable for guiding the nation through the Spanish-American War and the enactment of the highest tariff in the nation’s history. McKinley is remembered most prominently for his foreign policy. He was assassinated by Leon Czolgosz, a self-proclaimed anarchist, in September of 1901.
First elected in 1885, Grover Cleveland is notable for a number of reasons. He was the first Democrat elected since the Civil War, and he is also the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms in office. His firs term lasting from 1885 to 1889, his second spanning from 1893 to 1897. He is also the only president to marry in the White House. Cleveland had a strong reputation for his fiscal conservatism and his dedication to ending political corruption. He also signed the first legislation regulating the booming railroad industry.
Serving as the sixth president of the United States, John Quincy Adams served only one term, entering office in 1825. The son of the second president of the United States, John Adams, John Quincy also served successfully as Secretary of State under James Monroe. He presided over a time of great partisan unrest, and ultimately lost the presidency to his political rival, Andrew Jackson. His legacy as a diplomat has largely outlived his reputation as a president.
The 40th president of the United States, Ronald Reagan was also the first president since Dwight D. Eisenhower to serve two full terms. His presidency became notable as the cornerstone of a reinvigorated conservative movement in America. Known as the “Reagan Revolution,” his presidency advocated for smaller government and a bigger military. The coalition created under his presidency, consisting largely of white, socially conservative blue-collar workers, helped reshape the political landscape of the country leading into the new millennium.
Lyndon B. Johnson was the 36th president of the United States, and the successor to John F. Kennedy after his assassination in 1963. Though Johnson was reelected after finishing out the last year of Kennedy’s term, he ultimately chose not to run again for reelection. He presided over the divisive Vietnam War, as well as the introduction of his Great Society and the War on Poverty. He also lobbied successfully to pass both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Civil Rights Act of 1968. The failures of the Vietnam War, however, have acted as the defining element of his time in office.
Elected as the fifth president of the United States, James Monroe is remembered most for his landmark foreign policy, which opposed European intervention in the Americas, which became known as the Monroe Doctrine. He is also known as the last of the Founding Fathers to serve as president.
Elected as the fourth president of the United States, James Madison is largely considered to be the “Father of the Constitution” and the primary voice behind the Bill of Rights. Madison also served as Thomas Jefferson’s Secretary of State. He served two full terms as president.
Elected to serve as the second president of the United States in 1797, Adams was also the first president to only serve one full term. As successor to President George Washington, Adams oversaw the peaceful resolution to the French conflict of 1798, as well as the Alien and Sedition Acts. Adams eventually lost the presidency to his Founding Brother and political rival Thomas Jefferson.
The most popular president of the Twentieth Century, with an average approval rating of 70.1 percent, John F. Kennedy became the face of a young and invigorated America. Elected as the 35th president of the United States, Kennedy took office in 1961. He presided over the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Space Race. He also oversaw the beginning stages of the Vietnam War and key points of the Civil Rights Movement. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, having only served two years and 10 months as president.
Elected as the 11th president of the United States, James K. Polk entered office in 1845 and served only one full term. Considered by many historians to be the last strong president prior to the Civil War, he is known for his strong foreign policy, particularly in his dealings with Great Britain as well as presiding over the Mexican American War. He chose not to seek reelection, and died of cholera shortly after the end of his term.
Elected in 1953 as the 34th president of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidency is most notable for his handling of the Cold War and other major foreign policy moves. His nuclear strategy, known as “deterrence” allowed the U.S. to build up a nuclear arsenal while also allowing the government to cut overall military spending. Because of his background as a decorated World War II general, Eisenhower was able to navigate the country through difficult Cold War entanglements, while also presiding over prosperity at home.
Elected as the seventh president of the United States, Andrew Jackson is also considered by most historians to be the first official leader of the Democratic Party. He presided over a great expansion of the American democratic process, advocating against the Electoral College and for more broad voting rights. He also oversaw the enforcement of the Indian Removal Act, and the collapse of the Second Bank of the United States.
Harry Truman ascended to the presidency after the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt during his fourth term in office. On April 12, 1945 Truman became the 33rd president of the United States. He presided over the conclusion of World War II, the beginnings of the Cold War and the Korean War. Truman also made the order to drop the atom bomb on Japan, and witnessed the signing of the charter for the United Nations.
Woodrow Wilson served as the 28th president of the United States. Considered one of the most important leaders in the Progressive Movement, Wilson took office in 1913 and presided over the passage of national women’s suffrage and America’s entrance into World War I. He also oversaw the passage of the Federal Reserve Act, the Clayton Antitrust Act, the Federal Farm Loan Act and a national income tax. Though he was a controversial leader in his first term, he won reelection in 1916.
After the assassination of William McKinley in 1901, Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt ascended from the vice presidency to the presidency. With his reputation as brash cowboy, Roosevelt led the country through a number of Progressive reforms, including the “busting” of business trusts and an imperialistic foreign policy. His domestic policy became known as the “Square Deal” and his famous foreign policy mantra, “speak softly and carry a big stick” defined the emerging role of America on the national stage. Roosevelt was reelected with overwhelming support in 1904, and later went on to found the Progressive Party, the most successful third party of the twentieth century.
One of the most important figures in the founding of the American Republic, Thomas Jefferson was elected as the third president of the United States in 1801. He served two full terms and presided over the Louisiana Purchase, effectively doubling the size of the United States. He also appointed Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to be explorers of the new territory. His political views would form the basis for the Jacksonian Democrats.
George Washington was elected to be the first president of the United States in 1789. As the leader of the military efforts in the American Revolutionary War, Washington was immensely popular and well respected among his fellow founders. He presided over the first constitution convention, where the United States Constitution was drafted. Washington supported a reasonable tax system, a national bank and a stronger Federal government than that which Thomas Jefferson advocated. Because of this, he was largely viewed as a supporter of the Federalists. Washington served two full terms in office and chose not run for a third.
Having served 4,422 days in office, Franklin D. Roosevelt served longer as president than any other president before or since. He took office during the struggles of the Great Depression, and led the country through World War II. He was known for his “fireside chats” that brought comfort to Americans during a time of military upheaval and political uncertainty. He was elected four times, ultimately suffering a stroke and dying during his fourth term. His New Deal reforms laid the foundation for the modern welfare state and his speeches remain some of the most influential in American presidential politics.
Abraham Lincoln presided over the most tumultuous period of America’s history: The American Civil War. He was elected to the presidency in 1861 and served until his assassination in 1865. His dedication to the preservation of the Union led the country through the difficult but transformative years of he Civil War, eventually leading to the eradication of slavery and reconciliation with the South. He ranked first place in nine of the surveys included, and second in six. His place in the nation’s history is that of the Great Unifier as well as the Great Emancipator.
Even to this day, elements of his legacy remain controversial, but his importance in the emergence of a modern, unified America is unquestioned. Much like Washington and FDR, Lincoln was revered as a political savior by those who supported him and derided as a tyrant by those who didn’t. He oversaw the beginnings of the industrial economy in America, expanded the role of the federal government and sought ernest reconciliation with those who sought to separate themselves from the Union. On April 15, 1865 Lincoln was assassinated by Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth.