Top 20 United States Presidents

A few years ago I ranked the top 20 presidents in the history of the U.S.  I went back recently, and looked at the list again.  I decided that it just did not look right, so I opened a spreadsheet, and began to rank the presidents on several criteria.  These included: Popularity, Character, Number of Terms, the Issues that they had to deal with, their Legacy, the Legislation that they pushed through, their Effectiveness, and their Leadership, and their Negatives.  I gave more weight to: Issues, Legacy, Legislation and Effectiveness.

In the end, my list looked mostly as it had before, but some things looked much better.  Enjoy.

  1. Abraham Lincoln– He had it all: the biggest issue (the Civil War), the best rhetoric, an impeccable character, and was unafraid to take the wheel if it was needed.   He died in office before making any large mistakes.  He tried to choose Lee.  He fired incompetent generals at will, and chose Grant in the end.  He delivered the Gettysburg Address.  He signed the Emancipation Proclamation.  He preferred an easy peace with the South at the end of the war.  On the downside, he did suspend habeas corpus during the war.
  2. George Washington– The first.  He was extremely popular.  He was very careful to set proper precedents for the office.  He had been General of the armies during revolution.  He showed his character by refusing to be king.
  3. Franklin Delano Roosevelt– He had the big events: WWII, the Great Depression.  He is and will be the only four “termer.”  He overcame Polio, and he was an excellent orator.
  4. Thomas Jefferson– He was the author of Declaration of Independence.  He was a Founding Father, and he made the Louisiana Purchase.  However, he did disband the National Bank, and was a somewhat divisive figure.
  5. Theodore Roosevelt II– TR, a true man’s man.  He was a sportsman, and one of the first true American naturalists.  He established many of the National Parks that we have today.  He led the charge up San Juan Hill.  He is a symbol of American Imperialism (“Speak softly and carry a big stick).
  6. Ronald Wilson Reagan– He brought America out of a recession.  He proved the greatness of conservative fiscal and social ideals.  He proved the greatness of capitalism using its principals to economically bring down the greatest threat to America in its history.  He is still known as the Great Communicator.  He won 49 0f 50 states.
  7. James Monroe– Probably the most popular President ever while in office.  His presidency is still known as “the Era of Good Feelings.”  He instituted the Monroe Doctrine which established the attitude that the U.S. did not support European involvement in the Americas.
  8. James Madison– He was president during the war of 1812.  He was a Founding Father, and he was the designer and author of the Constitution.
  9. Harry S. Truman– Two termer.  He had the big event (WWII).  He made what may have been the hardest decision ever made by a president, and it was the right one (the atomic bomb).
  10. Andrew Jackson– He is a two termer.  He was a war hero.  He stood up to the Supreme Court.  He was very popular.
  11. Thomas Woodrow Wilson– He was a two termer who led the U.S. during WWI and started the League of Nations, the precursor to the United Nations.
  12. William Jefferson Clinton– He was very popular.  He was a two termer.  He served during a time of economic growth.  He was fiscally conservative, and was able to get his economic policies passed even though he did not have a sympathetic Congress.  His positives will probably outweigh the negatives caused by his personal problems and impeachment.
  13. George Walker Bush   He has the big events: 911 and the war.  His 911 speech will go down as one of the greatest of any president.  He had a sympathetic congress, and pretty much passes any legislation that he liked during his first two years.  He effectively prosecuted a war against an enemy that could not be easily seen.  He did hot do enough to get his message out there, and as a result, his second term was a failure highlighted by the loss of the Congress, and eventually the Presidency for his party.
  14. Dwight David Eisenhower– He was general of the allied armies during WWII.  He was a two termer who served during a very happy time for America, the 50s.
  15. James Knox Polk  He expanded America more than any president except Jefferson.  Took in the Oregon Territory, and the California Territory.  He annexed Texas (this should get him a couple of more points).  He signed The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.  He ran on the slogan of 54-40 or Fight.  His policies stalled the Civil War for a few years.  He did not want to be President, and only served because he was asked to.
  16. John Adams– One of the most important of the Founding Fathers, he stood on his principles and kept America out of an unnecessary war even though it hurt him politically and probably cost him reelection.  He was disliked politically and arrogant.  Also, he signed the Alien and Sedition Acts which were alter declared unconstitutional.  These things pushed him down the list.
  17. John Fitzgerald Kennedy– He was extremely popular.  He faced down the Soviets.  He pushed the Space Program.  He was a good orator.  He was a war hero.  On the downside, there was the Bay of Pigs, the War in Vietnam, and his social life.  Also, his Presidency was cut short. 
  18. William McKinley– He was President during the Spanish American War.  He acquired, Guam, The Philippines and Puerto Rico from Spain.  He also advocated annexation of Hawaii.
  19. George Herbert Walker Bush– He presided over the fall of Communism and Desert Storm.  He was a war hero.  He was the former head of the CIA and former Ambassador to the UN.  On the downside, “No new Taxes” and only one term.
  20. Lyndon B. Johnson– His social policies were largely responsible for the success of the American Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.  However, his welfare state was a big issue.  He got America further involved in Vietnam, and he bowed-out after only one term.

7 Responses

  1. here’s mine:1.Lincoln 2.Washington 3.FDR 4.TR 5.Polk 6.Monroe 7.Truman 8.Reagan 9.JFK 10.LBJ 11.Nixon 12.Fillmore 13.Arthur 14.John Adams 15.Wilson 16.Clinton 17.B. Harrison 18.Bush Senior 19.McKinley 20.Hayes.

  2. why are some on the list for mainly pre-presidential contributions?

    • I looked back at every one of these, and I mentioned a highlight of each one’s presidency. In some cases, I mentioned achievements made before they were president because these events are too closely associated with the person. Also in most of these cases, they would never have been elected president without the event mentioned. Eisenhower is a great example of this.
      If I had taken pre-election accomplishements too seriously, Grant would have made the list, and no one should confuse him with a good president. In fact, he made my bottom five.
      I enjoyed the comment, but I would like to know what in particular you do not agree with, and who you think I ranked incorrectly because of it.


  3. there were a few on the list that i felt you didn’t really mention their presidency much. specifically, Jefferson and Madison. also, the war of 1812 was a draw at best for the U.S. and when was JFK a war hero?

    • As far as Jefferson goes, I think that the Louisiana Purchase was one of the most important things ever accomplished by a sitting president, even if you argue that he was constitutionally overstepping his bounds when he did it. His destruction of the national bank and economic policy was also a very important aspect of his presidency, even though (and perhaps because) it had a negative impact on the economy for the next several decades.
      Just because we did not necessarily win the War of 1812, does not mean that Madison does not get credit for getting the country, our government, and the nation’s capital (after being burned to the ground) through it. At least we were not a British colony again after it was over. Much of my respect and praise for Lincoln is for the way he comported himself, and led the country during some of the darkest days of the civil war, and this is one of the reasons why I put George W. Bush on the list. He was President during one of the nation’s greatest tragedies. He gets credit for leading the country in its aftermath. His post-911 speech alone would probably get him on the list.
      JFK was a serious war hero, not like Grant or Eisenhower leading huge armies of men in the name of his country, but the kind who led a small group of men while they were being shot at by the enemy, and still he distinguished himself enough that a movie, PT 109 , was made about it (and should have been).

      Thanks again for the good comment and for clarifying your earlier statement,

  4. also, I wasn’t saying that Madison doesn’t get credit. just making a point-out. as to bush jr., he had a strong reaction to 9/11. after that point, i didn’t think he was that good. google ”goodbye to the worst president in history:10 reasons history will hang you.” Jefferson’s closing the central bank would be considered great today, but not at that time.

    • I looked at the list, and I will tell you, history will not remember any of that except for the election, Katrina and 911.
      The election only pointed out some problems with the electoral process. In the end, American and the U.S. Supreme Court got it right. The rest is just a bunch of whiney liberal sour grapes. They need to get over it. It only makes them look bad.
      Since I work for a disaster relief agency, I am pretty in tune with disasters, and I will say that the inaction by the Federal government had to due with legal regulations regarding how disasters were handled up to that time. It was the responsibility of the governor of Louisiana to request the disaster be declared. Her inaction cost lives, as did the mayor’s inability to cooperate with federal agencies. I also remember Bush calling for a mandatory evacuation four days before landfall. Neither the mayor, nor the governor backed him up on this. Many people chose to stay anyway. Any able-bodied person who did not honor the President’s request to leave in a timely manner ended up making themselves victims, and only hampered rescuers’ efforts to save people who could not really leave the city.
      That all being said, I believe that Bush could have been more proactive and led better in a rhetorical sense during this crisis, and I believe history will hold him to blame unfairly for Katrina.
      Finally, I believe it is the height of blind partisanism to attempt to hold the Bush responsible for 911. He was no more responsible for it than FDR was for Pearl Harbor. It was his reaction afterward, and his strong focus on making and keeping America safe that will be his legacy. Don’t forget, it was Clinton who took his finger off the trigger when he had a chance to kill Bin Laden.
      As a student of history, I believe it is too early to write the Bush story. Most of the time, you should wait about 20 years before attempting to do a serious history on any subject. That being said, I believe that Bush’s character and his many accomplishments in the face of political opposition heretofore unseen in history will see him revised positively. Reagan was reviled when he left office, as was Clinton, and I believe both of them have been revised fairly positively over the past few years.

      This has still been a good discussion ‘avi.’ It’s a nice contrast to the many people who post things that are either illegible or full of expletives. No one even got called a Nazi or invoked the Holocaust. Very nice. Feel free to comment on my blog any time.


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