Top 10 Most Influential U.S. Presidents

Of the men who have been president of the United States, there are just a few who historians agree can be ranked among the best. Some were tested by domestic crises, others by international conflict, but all left their mark on history. This list of the 10 best presidents contains some familiar faces... and maybe a few surprises.

Abraham Lincoln, Most Influential American President
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If not for Abraham Lincoln (March 4, 1861 – April 15, 1865), who presided during the American Civil War, the U.S. might look very different today. Lincoln guided the Union through four bloody years of conflict, abolished slavery with the Emancipation Proclamation, and at war's end laid the foundation for reconciliation with the defeated South. Sadly, Lincoln did not live to see a fully reunited nation. He was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth in Washington D.C, weeks before the Civil War officially concluded. More »

Franklin Delano Roosevelt
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Franklin Roosevelt (March 4, 1933 – April 12, 1945) is the nation's longest-serving president. Elected during the depths of the Great Depression, he held office until his death in 1945, just months before the end of World War II. During his tenure, the role of the federal government was greatly expanded into the bureaucracy it is today. Depression-era federal programs like Social Security still exist, providing basic financial protections for the nation's most vulnerable. As a result of the war, the United States also assumed a prominent new role in global affairs, a position it still occupies. More »

Washington Crossing the Delaware
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Known as the father of the nation, George Washington (April 30, 1789 – March 4, 1797) was the first president of the U.S. He served as commander in chief during the American Revolution and afterward presided over the Constitutional Convention of 1787. With no precedent for selecting a president, it fell to the members of the Electoral College to choose the nation's first leader two years later. Washington was that man.

Over the course of two terms, he would establish many of the traditions of the office still observed today. Deeply concerned that the office of president not be seen as that of a monarch, but as one of the people, Washington insisted he be called "Mr. President," rather than "your excellency." During his tenure, the U.S. established rules for federal spending, normalized relations with its former enemy Great Britain, and laid the groundwork for the future capital of Washington D.C. More »

Thomas Jefferson
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Thomas Jefferson (March 4, 1801 – March 4, 1809) also played an outsized role in America's birth. He drafted the Declaration of Independence and served as the nation's first secretary of state. As president, he organized the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the United States and set the stage for the nation's westward expansion. While Jefferson was in office, the United States also fought its first foreign war, known as the First Barbary War, in the Mediterranean and briefly invaded present-day Libya. During his second term, Jefferson's vice president, Aaron Burr, was tried for treason. More »

Andrew Jackson
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Andrew Jackson (March 4, 1829 – March 4, 1837), known as "Old Hickory," is considered the nation's first populist president. As a self-styled man of the people, Jackson earned fame for his exploits at the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812 and later against the Seminole Indians in Florida. His first run for the presidency in 1824 ended in a narrow loss to John Quincy Adams, but four years later Jackson won in a landslide. 

In office, Jackson and his Democratic allies successfully dismantled the Second Bank of the United States, ending federal efforts at regulating the economy. An avowed proponent of westward expansion, Jackson had long advocated for the forced removal of Native Americans east of the Mississippi. Thousands perished along the so-called Trail of Tears under relocation programs Jackson implemented. More »

Teddy Roosevelt
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Theodore Roosevelt (September 14, 1901 – March 4, 1909) came to power after the sitting president, William McKinley, was assassinated. At age 42, Roosevelt was the youngest man to take office. During his two terms in office, Roosevelt used the bully pulpit of the presidency pursue a muscular domestic and foreign policy.

He implemented strong regulations to curb the power of large corporations like Standard Oil and the nation's railroads. He also beefed up consumer protections with the Pure Food and Drug Act, which gave birth to the modern Food and Drug Administration, and created the first national parks. Roosevelt also pursued an aggressive foreign policy, mediating the end of the Russo-Japanese War and developing the Panama Canal. More »

Harry Truman
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Harry S. Truman (April 12, 1945 – January 20, 1953) came to power after serving as vice president during Franklin Roosevelt's final term in office. Following FDR's death, Truman guided the U.S through the closing months of World War II, including the decision to use the new ​atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan.

In the years after the war, relations with the Soviet Union quickly deteriorated into a "Cold War" that would last until the 1980s. Under Truman's leadership, the U.S. launched the Berlin Airlift to combat a Soviet blockade of the German capital and created the multibillion-dollar Marshall Plan to rebuild war-torn Europe. In 1950, the nation became mired in the Korean War, which would outlast Truman's presidency. More »

Woodrow Wilson
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Woodrow Wilson (March 4, 1913 – March 4, 1921) began his first term vowing to keep the nation out of foreign entanglements. But by his second term, Wilson did an about-face and led the U.S. into World War I. At its conclusion, he began a vigorous campaign to create a global alliance to prevent future conflicts. But the resulting League of Nations, a precursor to the United Nations of today, was largely hobbled by the United States' refusal to participate after rejecting the Treaty of Versailles. More »

James K. Polk
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James K. Polk (March 4, 1845 – March 4, 1849) served only one term, but it was a busy one. He increased the size of the United States more than any other president than Jefferson through the acquisition of California and New Mexico as a result of the Mexican-American War, which occurred during his tenure. He also settled nation's dispute with Great Britain over its northwest border, giving the U.S. Washington and Oregon and giving Canada British Columbia. During his time in office, the U.S. issued its first postage stamp and the foundation for the Washington Monument was laid. More »

Dwight D. Eisenhower
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During Dwight Eisenhower's (January 20, 1953 – January 20, 1961) tenure, the conflict in Korea ceased (though the war was never officially ended), while at home the U.S. experienced tremendous economic growth. A number of milestones in the civil rights movement took place, including the Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56 and the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

While in office, Eisenhower signed legislation that created the interstate highway system and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration or NASA. In foreign policy, Eisenhower maintained a strong anti-communist policy in Europe and Asia, expanding the nation's nuclear arsenal and supporting the government of South Vietnam. More »

Honorable Mention

If one more president could be added to this list, it would be Ronald Reagan. He helped bring the Cold War to an end after years of struggle. He definitely gets an honorable mention for this list of influential presidents.
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Kelly, Martin. "Top 10 Most Influential U.S. Presidents." ThoughtCo, Aug. 6, 2017, thoughtco.com/most-influential-presidents-105460. Kelly, Martin. (2017, August 6). Top 10 Most Influential U.S. Presidents. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/most-influential-presidents-105460 Kelly, Martin. "Top 10 Most Influential U.S. Presidents." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/most-influential-presidents-105460 (accessed November 19, 2017).