Who is the greatest president in the almost 250-year history of the United States? Obviously, potential answers to that are up for debate, as is that a loaded question. So, let’s turn to science.
A group of U.S. political science students and scholars known as the American Political Science Association wanted to know the answer to that question so they came up with a way to get one. They developed a systematic ranking scheme which polled 162 of its members who rated all the former U.S. presidents on their effectiveness and their foresight while in office. Based on their results, here are the 20 greatest U.S. presidents in American history:
20 – William H. Taft
President from 1909 – 1913
William Howard Taft of Cincinnati, Ohio was the 27th president of the United States and also the 10th chief justice of the United States—he’s the only person in history to have held both titles.
With the help of his predecessor Teddy Roosevelt, Taft easily defeated his competition for the presidency in November of 1908. It was clear he knew what he was doing in business, in government, and in diplomacy. Of his accomplishments were his initiation of antitrust acts and his strong international policies.
19 – James K. Polk
President from 1845 – 1849
James Knox Polk was born in 1795, the first of ten children, in a log cabin in North Carolina and went on to become the 11th president of the United States. Before that, he was speaker of the House of Representatives (1835-1839) and the governor of Tennessee (1839-1841).
James Polk is well known as a leader who was able to set a policy in motion and see it all the way through—not just part way.
18 – Barack Obama
President from 2009 – 2017
The most recent American president on this list is Barack Obama—44th president of the United States, born in Hawaii and the first African American to serve in that position.
Barack Obama, despite a presidency full of opposition, was able to get elected to two terms and put into action significant legislation such as the Affordable Care Act. Though the effects of his presidency won’t fully be able to be considered until much later, at the time of the study he was well favored.
17 – George H. W. Bush
President from 1989 – 1993
George Herbert Walker Bush served as the 41st president of the United States after first serving as the vice president of the United States to Ronald Reagan from 1981 to 1989. That was the first time in 152 years that an incumbent vice president was elected to the presidency.
George H.W. Bush’s presidency was driven by foreign policy (military operations in the Persian Gulf and Panama, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union). He also signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
16 – James Monroe
President from 1817 – 1825
James Monroe, besides serving as the 5th president of the United States from 1817 to 1825, was also instrumental in the founding of the country. His presidency began what became known as the Era of Good Feelings.
Like George H.W. Bush, Monroe was also best known for his foreign policy which came to be known as the “Monroe Doctrine.” The Monroe Doctrine opposed further European colonization in both North and South America and considered any such advancement as a sign of aggression to be dealt with.
15 – John Adams
President from 1797 – 1801
John Adams, born in Massachusetts, served as the 2nd president of the United States and also as the first vice president to George Washington. He was one of the original Founding Fathers and was the first president to live in what is now known as the White House.
John Adams served a single four-year term as president and is known for having signed the controversial Alien and Sedition Acts that made it more difficult for immigrants to become citizens. However, he’s favored for his peaceful resolution of a serious conflict with France.
14 – John F. Kennedy
President from 1961 – 1963
Like Adams, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born in Massachusetts and served as the 35th president of the United States from January 1961 until his assassination in November of 1963. His approval rating of 70% is the highest of any president in history.
Kennedy is best known for his management of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, his establishment of the Peace Corps, his support of the Civil Rights Movement, and being the first U.S. president (and first world leader) to put a man on the moon.
13 – James Madison
President from 1809 – 1817
James Madison is best known for not only being the 4th president of the United States, but also as being one of the original Founding Fathers along with Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, John Adams, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson.
Madison—often referred to as the “Father of the Constitution”—helped to organize the Constitutional Convention and was the original writer of the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
12 – Andrew Johnson
President from 1865 – 1869
Andrew Johnson served as the 17th president of the United States from 1865 to 1869. His presidency was preceded by a vice presidency under Abraham Lincoln—a presidency he assumed immediately following Lincoln’s assassination.
Andrew Johnson’s spot on this list is mostly as a result of his having to mend a broken nation. When he assumed the presidency, the Civil War had just ended, the president had just been assassinated, and he had to figure out what to do with the Confederacy.
11 – Ronald Reagan
President from 1981 – 1989
Prior to serving as president, Ronald Wilson Reagan was first a Hollywood actor, then served as the governor of California from 1967 to 1975. He became the 40th U.S. president in 1981 and served two full terms. At the time of his inauguration, he was the oldest person to be elected president.
Reagan is well known and respected for his policies, both foreign and domestic. During his presidency he challenged Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall—a feat that happened just ten months after the end of his second term.
10 – Woodrow Wilson
President from 1913 – 1921
Before being elected to the 28th presidency of the United States, Woodrow Wilson served as the president of Princeton University and as the governor of New Jersey.
Wilson’s presidency is marked by his leadership throughout World War I, the passage of the Federal Reserve Act, and his involvement in the Paris Peace Conference where he pushed for the involvement of the United States in what would ultimately become the United Nations.
9 – Andrew Jackson
President from 1829 – 1837
Andrew Jackson out of Tennessee served as the 7th president of the United States after first gaining fame as a general in the United States Army and serving in Congress. In 1833 Jackson was the victim of the first ever physical attack on a U.S. president when he was punched by a dismissed member of the military.
Though he signed the controversial Indian Removal Act in 1830 (which forced the relocation of numerous Native American tribes), he did do other great things for the country. During his presidency, Jackson became the only president in history to completely pay off the national debt.
8 – Bill Clinton
President from 1993 – 2001
Before ascending to the presidency in 1993, William Jefferson Clinton first served as the attorney general of Arkansas (from 1977 – 1979), then as the governor of Arkansas (from 1979 – 1981, then again from 1983 – 1992). Once elected, he was the first Democratic president elected since the Carter administration of the 1970s and then the first Democrat to be elected to a second term since FDR.
During his presidency he presided over the longest period of economic growth in history, signed the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) into law, and left office with the highest end-of-office approval rating since WWII, earning him a spot on this list.
7 – Dwight D. Eisenhower
President from 1953 – 1961
Before serving as the 34th president of the United States, Dwight Eisenhower was first a five-star general in the United States Army during World War II. He planned and oversaw the invasion of North Africa and the invasions of France and Germany. Before being elected president, he served as the first supreme commander of NATO in the early 1950s.
As president, Eisenhower’s most well known acts were signing the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and developing the Interstate Highway System in 1956 that we still use today.
6 – Harry S. Truman
President from 1945 – 1953
After serving as vice president to Franklin D. Roosevelt for just 82 days, Harry Truman was sent straight to the presidency after FDR died in office on April 12th, 1945. And like Andrew Johnson after Lincoln, Truman had some pretty big shoes to fill.
During his presidency, which took place towards the end of World War II, Truman saw the surrender of Germany and the end to the war in Europe, he approved the dropping of two atomic bombs resulting in a Japanese surrender, and instituted the Marshall Plan.
5 – Thomas Jefferson
President from 1801 – 1809
Not only did Thomas Jefferson serve as the 3rd president of the United States, he was also one of the original Founding Fathers and the primary author of the Declaration of Independence. He was instrumental in the development of democracy and motivating colonists to break from the Kingdom of England.
Throughout his presidency, Thomas Jefferson was credited with organizing the Louisiana Purchase to increase westward expansion (and appointing Lewis and Clark to the job), signing the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves, and the founding the University of Virginia.
4 – Theodore Roosevelt
President from 1901 – 1909
Theodore Roosevelt served as the 26th president of the United States as well as vice president before that and governor of New York before that. Along with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt’s face is depicted on Mount Rushmore.
Known as “Teddy” Roosevelt (and namesake of the “teddy bear”), he became president following the assassination of William McKinley in 1901. He made conservation a top priority and established the National Park Service to preserve the U.S.’s natural resources. He also won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 for his part in ending the Russo-Japanese War.
3 – Franklin Delano Roosevelt
President from 1933 – 1945
Franklin Delano Roosevelt—often referred to as just FDR—served as the 32nd president of the United States just before Harry Truman. FDR is actually a fifth cousin of #4 on this list, Theodore Roosevelt.
Franklin D. Roosevelt won a record four presidential elections and served from 1933 until his death in 1945. This was the first time a U.S. president had been elected to a fourth term and, shortly after his death, the constitution was ratified to only allow two presidential terms.
FDR saw the United States through most of the Great Depression and World War II earning him one of the top spots on this list of greatest U.S. presidents.
2 – George Washington
President from 1789 – 1797
George Washington, the first ever U.S. president, comes in at #2 on this list. Before serving as president he was the general of the Continental Army during the American Revolution and one of the original Founding Fathers of the country. He, too, is memorialized on Mount Rushmore and is often called the “Father of His Country.”
After being unanimously voted president, Washington implemented a well-financed national government, proclaimed a policy of neutrality during the French Revolution, and set precedents for the office of the president that remain today.
1 – Abraham Lincoln
President from 1861 – 1865
Finally, the distinction of greatest president in American history goes Abraham Lincoln—16th president of the United States. Lincoln served the U.S. during the Civil War, the country’s most significant political crisis. During his presidency he maintained the Union, modernized the American economy, and abolished slavery.
Abraham Lincoln is remembered and revered for his perseverance in the face of adversity, his eloquence and inspiration, and for building the country we all know today through the period known as Reconstruction.