Who do you think was considered the best president in American history? A team of experts was recently commissioned by C-SPAN to answer that question definitively and the results are fascinating. They ranked each president according to a number of different factors such as public persuasion, crisis leadership, international relations, and vision while in office. So which of the presidents since 1774 were the cream of the crop, the best of the best? We’ve compiled those presidents who made it into the top 40 right here. Whether you agree or disagree, read on to find out who made the cut!
40. Warren G. Harding
The election of 29th president Warren G. Harding was a landmark one because it was the first one in which women could vote. A rural Ohio man through and through, Warren Harding started out his career in the newspaper industry, owning newspaper Marion Star. After he entered politics, he only left his rural Ohio hometown when it was absolutely required for the role.
During his tenure form 1921 to 1923, Harding championed a “return to normalcy” and formally ended World War I in 1921 when he declared the US officially at peace with Germany, Hungary, and Austria. He attempted to stimulate the economy through a number of measures. His cabinet suffered many scandals and he sadly died of a heart attack while in office as they were first becoming public.
39. John Tyler
John Tyler became the 10th president following the death of President William Henry Harrison and served in office from 1841 until 1845. He was the first president to take over from a president who died while in office and thus was the first president to not be elected. As the debate over slavery was heating up, he supported the right of states to make their own decisions on this and other matters.
He refused to be a “passive” replacement president and actually made a few enemies in Congress, thus earning him the snide nickname of “His Accidency”. They tried to impeach him (the first attempt in American history) but the attempt fell through. On the foreign front, he brokered treaties with both China and Britain. Tyler was also the president with the most amount of children: 15.
38. William Henry Harrison
The tenure of 9th president William Henry Harrison was remembered mainly for tragedy. That’s because Harrrison was the first president to die in office and retains the record of holding the shortest term in office: only 31 days, from March 4, 1841 until April 4, 1841. He died from pneumonia following his rainy-day inauguration, with some saying it was because he refused to wear a warm jacket, rode on horseback, and then gave a two-hour speech.
Harrison was the last president that was alive before the American Revolution and garnered fame for leading the US military to victory in the 1811 Battle of Tippecanoe and was known by the nickname “Old Tippecanoe”. He was the first sitting president to be photographed, but the picture has unfortunately been lost to history. Harrison’s father was Benjamin Harrison, a founding father and his grandson, also named Benjamin Harrison, would go on to become the 23rd president, from 1889 to 1893.
37. Millard Fillmore
Remember the Whig Party? Of course not, because Millard Fillmore was the last Whig Party president before the party crumbled. He was born into poverty but educated himself enough that he eventually rose to the rank of vice president under President Zachary Taylor. He became the 13th president when President Taylor passed away from cholera while in office in 1850.
Immediately after Taylor’s death, the entire White House cabinet resigned and Fillmore was faced with building a new one from scratch. During his presidency from 1850 to 1853, he signed the Compromise of 1850 which attempted (and failed) to prevent a rift between the North and South. Regarding foreign affairs, he helped develop a relationship with Japan, which banned all foreign relations, including foreign trade, at the time. Under his leadership, they began to allow American ships to stop in Japan for emergencies or to get food or water.
36. Herbert Hoover
The 31st US President Herbert Hoover was president during one of the most difficult times in American History. Originally from Iowa and then Oregon, he attended Stanford University the first year it opened in 1891 and married his college sweetheart, Lou Henry. Before entering politics, much of his time was spent working abroad in China. He was in Europe when World War I broke out and gained recognition for helping evacuate about 120,000 American tourists who were in France and Germany at the time.
During his term from 1929 until 1933, the stock market crashed and the Great Depression began. Despite the trying circumstances, he tried several tactics to help the country. Hoover attempted to lower taxes and tried to convince businesses to retain their employees during the downturn. However, change comes slowly and he was forced to hold strong amid the worst economy the country has ever experienced.
35. Chester Arthur
Chester Arthur, the 21st president, was the son of Irish immigrants who moved to Vermont, where he was born. People said that he “looked like a president”, although he didn’t become president in until after the assassination of President James Garfield in 1881, under whom he was the vice president. One of the major accomplishments during his presidency from 1881 until 1885 was making the Pendleton Act a law.
The Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act changed the face of government jobs by making sure that people earn federal government jobs through a merit-based system, separate form political affiliation. The act started the use of exams for government jobs. During his presidency, he also enacted the country’s first immigration law at the federal level, which aimed to stop “paupers, criminals, and lunatics” from immigrating.
34. Martin Van Buren
In office from 1837 until 1841, Martin Van Buren was president during a huge economic crisis known as the Panic of 1837 that started just a three months after he took office. This was the United States’ first great depression. Nicknamed “the Little Magician,” Van Buren advocated for the US Treasury to be independent of the government and to hold all its funds separately, in order to separate it from changes in political opinions.
Before becoming president, he was secretary of state under President Andrew Jackson and later “minister to Great Britain”. He only served one term and was under much scrutiny because of the great depression that he inherited, in which huge amounts of businesses and banks closed down. However, the policies he set forth eventually revitalized the economy. By that time the effects were being felt, however, he was no longer president and he therefore didn’t get much credit for the work.
33. George W. Bush
George W. Bush was the 43rd US President and was commander in chief during one of its most devastating moments, the September 11 attacks in 2001. During his two-term presidency from 2001 to 2008, he ordered the invasion of Afghanistan as well as a second Gulf War in Iraq, which overthrew its leader Saddam Hussein. He also established the Department of Homeland Security in response to the 9/11 terror attacks.
Prior to becoming president, he spent five years as the governor of Texas. He won the 2000 presidential election following a lengthy recount of the votes in Florida due to winning the popular vote by only 0.5 percent in that state. He became president after winning the electoral vote, even though he lost the popular vote. He was also the second president in history to be the son of a former president, since his father George H.W. Bush had been president about a decade prior.
32. Rutherford B. Hayes
Rutherford B. Hayes was the 19th president of the United States from 1877 until 1881. Similar to in the 2000 elections, he lost the popular vote but eventually won the electoral vote after months of dispute. Even legendary author Mark Twain promoted Hayes for president! Before that, he had also been the governor of Ohio for three terms and started out his political career in the now-defunct Whig party.
He was a proponent of expanding civil rights for the Black community, but his efforts were blocked by an opposing-majority Congress. He advocated for civil service exams to ensure that those in the government earned jobs based on merit rather than political ties, which later became the Pendleton Act. His wife was the first college-educated First Lady and encouraged the first alcohol-free White House.
31. Zachary Taylor
The 12th US President, Zachary Taylor, is known mostly for the fact that his time in office was so short. He was a war hero before entering politics and was nicknamed “Old Rough and Ready” for his on-the-field leadership skills during his military days. He was renowned for being a war hero in the Mexican-American War. Zachary Taylor was also the last Whig Party leader to be elected president.
His time in office, which began in March 1849, focused heavily on the debate around slavery. Taylor leaned toward an anti-slavery position, even though he himself owned slaves at the time. He encouraged New Mexico and California to become states during his time in office. Sadly, he passed away in office on July 9, 1850 due to cholera. He had only become sick a few days before, with some saying that he had gotten sick from bacteria in the milk an ice water he had consumed on July 4th, in addition to a large amount of cherries.
30. Benjamin Harrison
Benjamin Harrison was the 23rd president of the United States and served in the Union Army during the American Civil War. He ranks at number 30 on the list of greatest US presidents, primarily for excelling at international relations and for his good working relationship with Congress while in office from 1889 to 1893. His nickname while in office was “Little Ben”.
Harrison is well remembered for advocating and enforcing voting rights for African Americans. He was also responsible for admitting the following western states into the Union: North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Washington, and Wyoming. Harrison was the great grandson and namesake of founding father Benjamin Harrison and remains the only president to also have a grandfather serve as president of the United States, William Henry Harrison or “Old Tippecanoe”.
29. James A. Garfield
James A. Garfield was the 20th US president and holds the title of being the only sitting member of the House of Representatives to be elected president of the United States. Before his political career, Garfield served as a major general on the Union side of the American Civil War and fought in a number of important Civil War battles such as Middle Creek, Shiloh and Chickamauga.
He managed to accomplish a long list of achievements while in office from March 4, 1881 to September 19, 1881. Among many other things, he managed to build up the navy and purge corruption in the postal service. He was concerned with civil rights and advocated for a universal education system for all. He also appointed a number of African Americans, such as Frederick Douglass, to prominent government positions. Sadly his presidency was cut very short following an assassination attempt in July 1881 that lead to a number of infections.
28. Richard M. Nixon
Richard M. Nixon was the 37th president of the United States and had a huge talent for negotiating foreign affairs. While in office from 1969 to 1974, he successfully ended American involvement in Vietnam, brought POWs home, opened diplomatic relations with China, and signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the USSR. Before becoming president, he had served as vice president to President Dwight D. Eisenhower from 1953 until 1961.
Nixon was also responsible for enforcing desegregation in the South, founding the Environmental Protection Agency, signed the anti-crime bill into law, and started the “War on Cancer”. Nixon would have ranked much higher on the list had it not been for the Watergate scandal. He had previously run for president in the 1960 elections but lost to John F. Kennedy.
27. Calvin Coolidge
Calvin Coolidge was first vice president, then took over after President Warren Harding’s death in 1923. He won the 1924 presidential election and served until 1929. Coolidge was a big advocate of small government and laissez-faire foreign policy. When he left office, he was quite popular. Many viewed his presidency as a time when dignity was restored to the position, since the White House had been marred by several years of scandals.
Calving Coolidge had a soft-spoken demeanor, but fought for what he believed was right. He was a firm supporter of racial equality and civil rights, though his efforts did not always get approval from the rest of the government. Such was the case when he advocated to make lynching a federal crime. He did, however, pass the Indian Citizenship Act, which gave citizenship to all Native Americans on reservations. “He embodied the spirit and hopes of the middle class, could interpret their longings and express their opinions. That he did represent the genius of the average is the most convincing proof of his strength,” his biographer wrote.
26. Jimmy Carter
Jimmy Carter served at the 39th President of the United States from 1977 until 1981. He grew up in a family of successful peanut farmers and while building up the business, he became passionate about the civil rights movement and that led to his entrance into politics. While president, he established the Department of Energy and the Department of Education. He was also behind the Camp David Accords, which led to the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty in 1979.
According to C-SPAN’s rankings, Carter scored highly for moral authority and for pursuing equal justice for all. He was faced with several international crises during his presidency, including the 1979 Energy Crisis and the Iran Hostage Crisis. Dealing with all these impacted the general attitude in the nation and in turn, his popularity rating, causing him to lose the 1980 elections to Ronald Reagan. In 2002, he won a Nobel Peace Prize for the work of his NGO, the Carter Center.
25. Gerald R. Ford Jr.
Gerald Ford became the 38th president of the United States after Richard Nixon resigned from office. His presidential tenure lasted from 1974 until 1977. He is remembered for taking part in the Helsinki Accords, which attempted to thaw relations with the Soviet Union during the Cold War and also notably pardoned former president Richard Nixon.
A native of Grand Rapids, Michigan, his law career propelled him into political life. Overall, he ranks high for his moral authority as he led the country through a serious economic depression. Gerald Ford holds the title of being the only man to serve as both president and vice president without being elected.
24. William H. Taft
President William H. Taft, the 27th president of the United States was the only man to serve as president and then chief justice of the United States. Yes, after serving as president, he became chief justice eight years later! Taft was from Ohio and went on to attend Yale to study law, where it is said he was a member of the Skull and Bones secret society there. He was a talented lawyer and was appointed a judge while still in his 20s.
During his term as president from 1909 to 1913, he focused his efforts on east Asia more so than European affairs. Taft also intervened in Latin American affairs to either set up or topple governments. Read on to find out which US president comes next on the list of greatest US presidents.
23. Grover Cleveland
Grover Cleveland served two terms as president, the first from 1885 to 1889. He lost re-elction the first time, but ended up winning again in 1893 and serving until 1897. He is championed by conservatives for his fiscal policy and because he advocated for political reform. During his second term, he was faced with handling the Panic of 1893, a terrible economic downturn, as well as a huge nationwide railroad strike known as the Pullman Strike of 1894.
He descended from one of the first families to move to the new world, going from Cleveland, England to Massachusetts in 1635. Cleveland excelled at public speaking and persuasion. “He possessed honesty, courage, firmness, independence, and common sense. But he possessed them to a degree other men do not,” his biographer later wrote. Despite a lackluster second term, Cleveland is considered one of the better US presidents.
22. Ulysses S. Grant
War hero Ulysses S. Grant was the 18th US president and was well liked by the public during his time in office from 1869 until 1877. Before this, he had served as the commanding general of the Union Army during the Civil War. A graduate of West Point, he rose to prominence when he fought in the Mexican-American War only a few years after graduation.
When he was sworn in as president at the age of 47, he was the youngest president at the time. Grant received high scores for having high public persuasion, moral authority, excelling at international relations and for pursuing justice for Americans, equally. He is remembered for being an honest person who took a strong stand against the KKK in the former Confederacy. Grant also appointed African Americans and Jewish Americans to office for the first time.
21. John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams was the sixth president of the United States, serving from 1825 until 1829 and was the son of president and Founding Father, John Adams. He ranks high for having a strong vision for the country and for his devotion to ensuring that all Americans were treated equally.
Adams was vehemently anti-slavery. According to him, he was “the acutest, the astutest, the archest enemy of southern slavery that ever existed.” President Adams was also a big advocate of nonintervention policies, staying out of European politics. He was also against the annexation of Texas. Fun Fact: The oldest surviving photo of a president is of John Quincy Adams in 1843, when he was 76 years old.
20. George H. W. Bush
George H. W. Bush ranks high on the list of top presidents due to his excellence in crisis leadership, being highly skilled in international relations and for his high moral authority. He served from 1989 until 1993, following eight years as vice president under Ronald Reagan. During his presidency, he oversaw the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War, and the first Gulf War.
Regarding domestic affairs, he established the Americans With Disablities Act and the Clean Air Act. He was also one of the signatories of the landmark North American Free Trade Agreement between the US, Canada, and Mexico. He and his wife Barbara hold the record for longest presidential marriage. When Barbara Bush passed away in April 2018, they had been married for 73 years.
19. John Adams
John Adams, one of the founding fathers of America, was the second president of the United States. Not to be completely eclipsed in our collective American conscience by his predecessor, he is best remembered for his resolution of the conflict with France and building up of the army and navy during his term from 1797 until 1801.
In fact, John Adams is commonly known as “the father of the American Navy.” He scored highest on international relations, moral authority and crisis leadership. Alas, Adams only served one term as president and was succeeded by another well-remembered man, Thomas Jefferson.
18. Andrew Jackson
Andrew Jackson ranks high on the list of US presidents mainly due to his abilities in public persuasion and his skill in crisis leadership while in office from 1829 until 1837. He holds the title of being the only US president who was a prisoner of war because he was taken captive by the British during the Revolutionary War when he was 13.
He remains the only president to manage to pay off the national debt and successfully prevented South Carolina from seceding from the Union. Although Andrew Jackson appears on the 20 dollar bill, he was against the use of paper money, preferring the use of gold and silver instead.
17. James Madison
James Madison, also known as the father of the constitution, was the fourth president of the United States and a Founding Father. Madison comes in at number 17 for his high moral authority and his superb performance during his two terms from 1809 until 1817. He led the country through the War of 1812 and called for beefing up the military, government powers, and establishing a national bank.
Madison was highly intelligent, completing college in just two years. He was also the first graduate student at Princeton University. His wife Dolley was instrumental in defining the role of first lady. She was the first to take an active role in the White House by redecorating and leading a public outreach program for orphans.
16. William McKinley Jr.
William McKinley Jr. was the 25th President of the United States and the very last president who served during the Civil War. He served as commander in chief from 1897 until 1901. The 25th president is predominantly remembered for leading the US to victory in the Spanish-American War.
McKinley Jr. is also known for advancing the US economy and maintaining the gold standard. If all that wasn’t impressive enough, he also served in office when Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines became US territories. McKinley ranks high on C-SPAN’s presidential survey in almost every criteria apart from pursuing equal justice for all.
15. Bill Clinton
Bill Clinton served as the 42nd President of the United States and is well remembered for his public persuasion and exemplary economic management during his term from 1993 until 2001. Clinton holds the title as having the longest period of economic expansion during peacetime of any president.
He accomplished a number of reforms regarding welfare and health insurance for children and was active in promoting peace efforts around the world. “He has brought on the greatest prosperity we have ever known and he doesn’t get the credit for it and that’s too bad,” said White House reporter Helen Thomas. His approval rating when he left office was 60%, the highest since World War II.
14. James K. Polk
James K. Polk served as the 11th President of the United States and scored highest for his crisis leadership and clear vision for the country during his tenure in office from 1845 until 1849. Polk was the first person whose inauguration was covered in the news by telegraph.
Under the leadership of President Polk, the United States reigned victorious in the Mexican-American War and greatly expanded US territory. With the Mexican Cession of 1848, the US expanded its territory to the Pacific Ocean. He also annexed the Republic of Texas during his tenure. President Polk’s tenure really took to heart the American idea of “from sea to shining sea.”
13. James Monroe
Founding Father James Monroe served as the fifth President of the United States from 1817 until 1825. He fought in the American Revolutionary War and his first term heralded in what was known as the Era of Good Feelings. President Monroe is well remembered today for his foreign policy, known as “The Monroe Doctrine.”
Monroe scored very high in international relations and performance but falls short in the pursuance of equal justice for all. But hindsight might see things differently – the fifth ever President of the United States won both of his elections in a landslide. Keep reading, you’ll never believe which president comes in 12th place!
12. Barack Obama
The ever-so-recently sitting Chief of Staff, Barack Obama, served as the 44th President of the United States and was the very first African-American to serve as president – a real feat! Obama scores very high for his moral authority, pursuing justice for all and was highly skilled at public persuasion while in office from 2009 until 2017.
Obama is remembered for many things, including reforming healthcare with the Affordable Care Act, repealing the military’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy, helping broker a nuclear agreement with Iran, normalizing relations with Cuba, and initiating sanctions against Russia for invading Ukraine.
11. Woodrow Wilson
Woodrow Wilson served as the 28th president of the United States for two terms, from 1913 to 1921. He scores highest for his clear agenda and skills at public persuasion. Wilson led the United States through World War I and assisted with the Treaty of Versailles that significantly helped end the war.
At the conclusion of the conference, Wilson is famous for saying that “at last the world knows America as the savior of the world!” Wilson. He strongly pushed for the US to join the League of Nations, which eventually became the United Nations, but congress did not approve.
10. Lyndon Baines Johnson
Lyndon Baines Johnson, or LBJ for short, was the 36th President of the United States and scored high on C-SPAN’s survey for pursuing equal justice for all and keeping good relations with Congress during his time in office from 1963 until 1969.
LBJ scored low for international relations, but what he lacked internationally, he made up for domestically. Johnson passed many domestic laws affecting civil rights, gun laws, and welfare. He passed Social Security into law and expanded Medicare and Medicaid.
9. Ronald Reagan
The ninth best president in history is none other than Ronald Reagan, who served as the 40th President of the United States from 1981 until 1989. Reagan scores among the highest of all the presidents for his skills at public persuasion and having a clear vision for the country.
President Reagan is well known for his policy of Reaganomics, as well as for ending the Cold War with the Soviet Union, and the Iran-Contra affair. He is also well remembered for his iconic speech in West Germany, standing in front of the Berlin Wall, in which he told Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev to “tear down this wall!”.
8. John F. Kennedy
John F. Kennedy comes in at number eight on the list. He served as the 35th President of the United States from 1961 until his assassination in 1963. He holds the title of being the first and only Roman Catholic to hold the position of president.
Kennedy scores highest for his abilities in public persuasion and holding a clear vision and agenda for the country. He established the Peace Corps and was leader during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Read on to find out who came in at number seven!
7. Thomas Jefferson
Founding Father Thomas Jefferson comes in at number seven on the list of best presidents. He served as the nation’s third president from 1801 until 1809 and was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence.
Jefferson orchestrated the Louisiana Purchase with France, doubling the territory of the United States. He was also an advocate of religious freedom and tolerance. Jefferson only falls short in one category of the survey, and that’s pursuing equal justice for all.
6. Harry S. Truman
Harry S. Truman served as the 33rd President of the United States and comes in as the sixth best president. He served in the US Army during World War I and took office just after the completion of World War II. He held office from 1945 until 1953.
During his time as president, he used his veto power an astounding 180 times. He also holds the title of being the only president to have used nuclear weapons. He ranks high in the categories of crisis leadership, pursuing justice for all and for performance.
5. Dwight D. Eisenhower
Army-General-turned-politician Dwight D. Eisenhower is the fifth highest ranking president on this list. He served as the 34th President of the United States from 1953 until 1961. He scored high for his moral authority, as well as crisis leadership and international relations.
Eisenhower was responsible for implementing the desegregation of the armed forces, a policy set by President Truman. Eisenhower has consistently topped surveys of the most admired men ever. Hey, it looks like everyone did like Ike after all.
4. Theodore Roosevelt
Coming in at no. 4 is Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States. He ranks second best for his skills at public persuasion and fourth in the areas of economic management, international relations, administrative skills and vision.
During his time in office from 1901 to 1909, Theodore Roosevelt was responsible for creating many national parks and forests, as well as monuments. He began the construction of the Panama Canal, expanded the Navy and won a Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating an end to the Russo-Japanese War. Read on to find out who came in third place.
3. Franklin D. Roosevelt
The third highest ranking president of all time is Franklin D. Roosevelt or FDR for short. He was the 32nd President of the United States and holds the title of being the only president to be elected four times, holding office from 1933 until 1945.
FDR was a master at public persuasion and crisis leadership. He led the nation through the Great Depression and all the way to victory in World War II. He established many social and economic reforms as part of the New Deal in an attempt to pull the US out of the grips of the Great Depression. Read on to find out who came in second place.
2. George Washington
The second highest-ranking president of all time is George Washington, the very first President of the United States. As a Founding Father, Washington defined the nation, as well as the duties of a president while in office from 1789 to 1797.
George Washington helped establish many of the most elemental parts of the US government, such as as the seat of government and the tax system. He was leader of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. Washington scores high in almost every single category except pursuing equal justice for all.
1. Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln is the highest ranking US president of all time. He served as the 16th president from 1861 until 1865. He led the Union through the Civil War and most importantly, started the process of abolishing slavery.
He set the grounds for ending slavery with his groundbreaking the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, which changed the status of slaves in the South to free people. It was his mission to add the 13th amendment to the constitution, which would officially outlaw slavery in the United States. Sadly, it was only passed after Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. A number of different polls show that Lincoln is the most admired US President of all time.
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