Who Was the Greatest President in American History?

Who was the greatest president?

See results without voting

It's fascinating to ponder who was the greatest all-time president in the history of the United States, not so much because it's that hard to come up with an answer, but because it's fun to examine the qualities that go into making a president "great". Whether one is ranking their place in history or examining their influence, doing so is mainly a subjective task.

Greatness derives to a small degree from popularity and to a greater degree from influence, both during the term or terms of the presidency and after. A great president must be somebody who has a legacy and who was a precedent setter. In that regard, there aren't that many men who qualify as the greatest president ever. Here are the few I think qualify:

  • George Washington
  • Thomas Jefferson
  • Abraham Lincoln
  • Theodore Roosevelt
  • Franklin Roosevelt

I think the following presidents are frequently brought up in casual conversation, but don't qualify for various reasons: Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton.

Truman is mentioned for the many foreign policy successes he had cleaning up after World War II, particularly the Marshall Plan, which is considered, if not the greatest, among the greatest pieces of foreign policy legislation in U.S. history. However, in terms of setting precedents, Truman was certainly not as influential as his predecessor, Franklin Roosevelt.

Dwight Eisenhower's two terms oversaw one of the greatest periods of growth and prosperity in U.S. history. However, historians debate exactly how much influence Eisenhower, who was considered a relatively passive president, had over that result given that it was natural for the nation to flourish in the post-war period.

John F. Kennedy was a man with great ideas who was an icon in U.S. history. However, his rhetoric was much greater than his results. While he talked a great game, the Cuban Missile Crisis happened under his watch and the conflict in Vietnam became much more serious.

Although both Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan are spoken of well by their constituents, it's too early to tell how long-lasting their influence and policies will be. Although Reagan is thought of as the father of a new conservative movement of limited government and the President who ended the Cold War, the national debt increased dramatically under Reagan and his deregulation of the banking industry has produced widespread corruption and financial disaster. Most historians also agree that the ending of the Cold War had more to do with what was happening in the U.S.S.R at the time than anything Reagan did.

As for Clinton, although he was President during a period of incredible prosperity, his presidency was marred by several personal controversies and impeachment proceedings for lying.

Franklin Roosevelt
Franklin Roosevelt

Franklin Roosevelt

Why the greatest?

  • He was the longest-serving president in U.S. history.
  • FDR's "New Deal" helped bring the U.S. out of The Great Depression.
  • Roosevelt developed Federal Deposit Insurance and Social Security.
  • FDR helped defeat Nazism and Germany and Japan during World War II.
  • One of the most beloved presidents due to optimism that brought U.S. out of The Great Depression.

Why not the greatest?

  • His Supreme Court packing widely seen as abuse of power.
  • His policies led to the internment of Japanese during World War II.
  • New Deal policies led to larger federal government and debt over time.

Conclusion: If one is taking a general survey of historians, FDR is usually mentioned as one of the top three presidents of all-time. However, as time passes, the policies he implemented have resulted in expanded government, expanded bureacracy, and a large national debt. Though not directly Roosevelt's fault, "The New Deal" represents the liberal approach to government that is now seen as failing, so some consideration has to be given to that legacy. However, ignoring that, the Supreme Court packing and Japanese internment camps were shameful episodes in American history.

Theodore Roosevelt
Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt

Why the greatest?

  • President who walked the walk and talked the talk.
  • During a time when businesses were unregulated, Roosevelt began to regulate them and vowed to work for the average citizen with his "Square Deal" domestic agenda. Helped pass many significant worker and consumer safety acts.
  • He was the force behind the completion of the Panama Canal.
  • T. Roosevelt began the conservation movement. Developed the National Parks system.
  • First American to win the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating and end to the Russo-Japanese War.

Why not the greatest?

  • The Brownsville Affair - Roosevelt acted too quickly to dishonorably discharge 167 members of a black military unit on false claims of a shooting spree. Refused to change his mind even when the claims proved false.
  • Belief in U.S. imperialism extended American influence throughout the world, sometimes through unethical methods.

Conclusion: There's a lot to be said for considering Theodore Roosevelt as the greatest U.S. President of all-time. While a Republican, he's known mostly for his regulation of business, his conservationism, and his emphasis on U.S. imperialism. His ego may have been to blame for Republicans losing the White House to Woodrow Wilson since he ran as a third party candidate.

Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

Why the greatest?

  • Mostly self-educated became a lawyer, Congressman, and President. Quintessential American story.
  • One of history's great orators. His speeches such as The Emancipation Proclamation and Gettysburg Address are core documents in American history.
  • He promoted the passage of the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery.
  • His active leadership was a key element leading to victory in The Civil War.
  • Generally recognized as a master politician whose skills were critical in his success and in holding the Union together.

Why not the greatest?

  • His moderate views on Reconstruction resulted in a hundred years of African-American inequality.
  • He may not have been the champion of equality many believe.
  • He greatly expanded the role of the federal government.
  • Assassination clouds an honest assessment of both Lincoln as a person and as a President.
  • He suspended habeas corpus during wartime.

Conclusion: Among historians, Abraham Lincoln is very frequently ranked #1 among U.S. Presidents. There is no denying his stature in American history and his leadership during The Civil War, which kept the country from coming apart. However, there are things to criticize about Lincoln like his assumption of power beyond the Constitution during wartime and his moderate view of Reconstruction that, while bringing the country back together, left inequities in society that lasted a century. Much like John F. Kennedy, Lincoln's assassination does seem to cloud an honest assessment of his presidency, though it was still undeniably great.

Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Why the greatest?

  • Jefferson was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence.
  • He purchased the Louisiana Territory from France.
  • Opposed a national bank and formed the basis for states' rights with the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions which he co-authored with James Madison.
  • Leading American opponent of the international slave trade and presided over its abolition.

Why not the greatest?

  • He decided to allow slavery in the newly acquired Louisiana Territory.
  • His second term much less successful than first.
  • The economic warfare he conducted against Britain through embargo laws hurt economy.
  • Owned hundreds of slaves and had relationship with one of his own slaves, his dead wife's half-sister, Sally Hemings, which produced six children.
  • His second presidential victory largely due to South and the three-fifths rule for slaves, which gave the South an inflated number of electors.

Conclusion: Historians have generally been more critical of Thomas Jefferson as time has worn on. His two terms as President provide a good deal of contrast as his first term was more successful than his second term. While Jefferson's two terms provide a contrast, there is no doubt that he was one of the great presidential thinkers. However, his complex views on slavery do provide fodder for his critics. That being said, his legacy is undeniable and he's clearly one of the greatest Presidents.

George Washington
George Washington

George Washington

Why the greatest?

  • Often overlooked simply because he was first, George Washington set precedents that still last today. Among the most important was the fact he didn't accept a third term in office even though it was well within his power. In fact, he could have probably declared himself King.
  • Washington developed the cabinet system.
  • He set the precedent of the inaugural address.
  • Washington put the country on track to grow by remaining neutral while wars in Europe raged and suppressing rebellion at home at a time when the Republic could have easily fallen apart.
  • He centralized government and levied taxes, which were both desperately needed.
  • He was a great nationalist, an important quality for the first President.

Why not the greatest?

  • Legacy of writing not regarded as "exciting" compared with somebody like Jefferson.

Conclusion: Compared to both his contemporaries and those Presidents who would follow him, there is little criticism of Washington. While he certainly had enemies during his day, the judgment Washington displayed was nearly flawless in hindsight. Among the possible criticisms of Washington, his views on slavery changed over his lifetime and by the time of his death, he was a staunch abolitionist. Although a somewhat dull intellectual in terms of his writing, Washington's decisions formed the basis for the success of the United States and his contributions cannot be understated.

Who was the greatest recent president?

See results without voting

And the winner is...

George Washington.

Now, having said that, comparing Presidents from different eras is a little bit like comparing basketball players from different eras. The challenges faced by George Washington were quite a bit different than those faced by Franklin Roosevelt. However, Washington's accomplishments were pretty amazing and probably no President faced more challenges than he did. One might evaluate Presidents of the modern era against each other, in which case I'd propose that Theodore Roosevelt was the greatest. Roosevelt is somewhat underrated by contemporary historians, yet he established many of the laws and regulations that helped workers gain control over their lives.

No matter one's choice of the greatest President ever, the argument will be forever fascinating. There are many viable choices and no doubt the historians' choice will change over time.

More by this Author


Comments 11 comments

crankalicious profile image

crankalicious 3 years ago from Colorado Author

Sir,

I actually had to cut and paste this into Word because it’s getting so long, but I owe you an answer, and you’ve gained a certain amount of respect from me for not being a parrot of Fox News. However, your opinions were probably formed from some kind of reading or media and it clearly differs from what I’ve learned and/or read. And thank you for being civil. I respect anyone who can disagree in a civil way.

You: We don't have to look at economics to see whether the country is still in a depression. Without WWII the US wouldn't have recovered the economy. Economic is a soft science, and it has no real objective points. The basics of supply and demand are never true when the government and monopolies are involved in the economy. We had all the economists in 2008 and they didn't have a clue that the economy was going to collapse before the election. The economists should have been tracking the dot com, and then the beginning of the housing and loan bubble back during Clinton and through the two terms of Bush. But they all kept quiet and the Federal Reserve did a bad job because by holding the prime rate very very low they allowed the housing bubble to build. The home loans started with Clinton and the democrats, but the republicans and Bush didn't do anything to stop them. 1929 to 1941 that is hardly a recovery period.

Me: You simple can’t say that without WWII, the US wouldn’t have recovered. Nobody can accurately predict what would have happened if…. So, statements like that don’t contribute to a cohesive or workable argument. All the other stuff about the housing bubble I agree with. That being said, the driving economic philosophy for our country over the past 80 or so years has been Keynesian. Do with that what you will.

You: I wasn't impressed by either of the BUSH presidents. When RR came in the prime rate was in the low 20%.

Me: Yes, the prime rate was at 20%, but the Federal Reserve had much more room to maneuver than under Obama. The price of oil dropped under Reagan and increased under Obama, which helped Reagan and hurt Obama. Anyway, these are just two points that suggest comparing the two can only be done in a complex analysis and it’s not apples vs. apples. If you like Reagan for what he represented, fine. But the economic expansion during his presidency was primarily a benefit to the top 1% of wage earners. The middle class went nowhere.

You: I don't have cable TV and I never watch the news for information on TV. My comments on Obama are based on what he did or didn't do and not on a personal basis. If any one is spewing partisan stuff it is coming from you. You assumed that I was on the right, and that I was a fan of the Fox stars. I am none of that. I think that both parties have done poorly in the last one hundred years. The only two presidents in that time that I admired were JFK and Ronald Reagan. Although, I was disappointed with RR letting Ollie North take the heat. We are a country down on its knees in more ways than the economy, and it got here by the tireless work of both parties. They moved the country to the left or the right but hardly ever forward, and many times backwards.

Me: I have a political preference, that’s for sure. However, the Democrats constantly irritate me. They tend to be a spineless party with lots of members who simply won’t stand up for what they believe in.

You: He is no JFK or RR and he is even worse than Jimmy Carter. And do you really want Joe Biden as president, if something happens to Obama. It would be like LBJ when he took over for JFK.

Me: A fair evaluation of Obama’s presidency is a long way off. The economy has been picking up. Job growth, albeit slow, is occurring. The stock market was around 9000 when he took office and is now at 14000. Obama was saddled with a terrible economy and turning that around is no small feat. Unfortunately, nobody has the patience for slow growth. And the right-wing was announcing Obama’s failed policies less than 90 days into his first term. I also think you’re being unfair to LBJ. Certainly not the greatest president, but he was saddled with the momentum of the Vietnam War. Although he ultimately escalated the war, JFK was the one who destabilized the South’s government and Eisenhower was the one who involved the CIA there.

You: It was Obama's fault for doing the stimulus and not directing the banks to use that money to help out the home owners that got the bad loans. The anyone can buy a house started in the Clinton era, and as I said Bush didn't do anything to stop it. Neither did any congress, and control went back and forth from democrats to republican and back. Obama had a total democrat controlled congress in his first two years.

Me: Yes, started in Clinton era. I’m not sure bailing out home owners who got bad loans does anything for the economy or is the right way to go. Ultimately, people are responsible for the contracts they sign. Plenty of blame to go around though. As I stated before, the Democrats, when they have any control, can’t agree on anything. They only seem to agree on stuff when they’re in the minority. I generally can’t stand the party.

You: My point on Obamacare was that Obama and his democrats should have focused on the economy, unemployment, and foreclosures before tackling a national takeover of the health care Industry. He had it all for the first two years, and he made the wrong choice.

Me: I disagree that Obamacare is a national takeover of health care. It forces people to buy private insurance. That’s not a takeover. We also have to have car insurance. The government doesn’t run that. The private insurance companies were instrumental in passing Obamacare. They will profit handsomely. If anything is wrong with Obamacare, that’s it. Still, that remains to be seen. Lots of opinion about something that’s hardly taken effect.


ib radmasters profile image

ib radmasters 3 years ago from Southern California

CK

The U.S. was already coming out of the Depression when WWII started. The comment about Keynesian economics is perfectly relevant to your point unless you don't understand Keynesian economics.

ib--------------

We don't have to look at economics to see whether the country is still in a depression. Without WWII the US wouldn't have recovered the economy.

Economic is a soft science, and it has no real objective points. The basics of supply and demand are never true when the government and monopolies are involved in the economy.

We had all the economists in 2008 and they didn't have a clue that the economy was going to collapse before the election.

The economists should have been tracking the dot com, and then the beginning of the housing and loan bubble back during Clinton and through the two terms of Bush. But they all kept quiet and the Federal Reserve did a bad job because by holding the prime rate very very low they allowed the housing bubble to build. The home loans started with Clinton and the democrats, but the republicans and Bush didn't do anything to stop them.

1929 to 1941 that is hardly a recovery period.

-----------------------------

By your own logic, you must also think Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush huge failures. After all, spending went sky high under both presidents.

ib----------------

I wasn't impressed by either of the BUSH presidents.

When RR came in the prime rate was in the low 20%.

------------------

And your obvious animosity toward Obama shows you cannot be objective about him as you are simply spewing the normal Fox News talking points.

ib------------

I don't have cable TV and I never watch the news for information on TV. My comments on Obama are based on what he did or didn't do and not on a personal basis. If any one is spewing partisan stuff it is coming from you. You assumed that I was on the right, and that I was a fan of the Fox stars. I am none of that.

I think that both parties have done poorly in the last one hundred years. The only two presidents in that time that I admired were JFK and Ronald Reagan. Although, I was disappointed with RR letting Ollie North take the heat.

We are a country down on its knees in more ways than the economy, and it got here by the tireless work of both parties. They moved the country to the left or the right but hardly ever forward, and many times backwards.

-------------------

Rarely can a president's term be evaluated while he's still in office. One can easily argue his economic policies are growing the economy (and one can argue that growth is too slow to be meaningful).

ib-----------------

He is no JFK or RR and he is even worse than Jimmy Carter.

And do you really want Joe Biden as president, if something happens to Obama. It would be like LBJ when he took over for JFK.

-------------------------

And it was Obama's fault people received bad loans?

ib----------

It was Obama's fault for doing the stimulus and not directing the banks to use that money to help out the home owners that got the bad loans.

-------------

Who deregulated the banking industry to allow for those loans?

ib---------------

The anyone can buy a house started in the Clinton era, and as I said Bush didn't do anything to stop it. Neither did any congress, and control went back and forth from democrats to republican and back.

------------------

To stop them, the banking industry needs regulation and Obama can't push any such legislation through.

ib-------------

Obama had a total democrat controlled congress in his first two year.s

---------------

As for Obamacare, a better health care system has been the focus of a majority of Americans for some time, so any president would likely see passing such legislation as a good thing. Since most of Obamacare's major provisions don't begin until 2014, its effectiveness remains to be seen.

ib-----------

my point on Obamacare was that Obama and his democrats should have focused on the economy, unemployment, and foreclosures before tackling a national takeover of the health care Industry.

He had it all for the first two years, and he made the wrong choice.

-------------------------

You didn't comment on Obama's fourth year that I mentioned.

fund raiser etc..


crankalicious profile image

crankalicious 3 years ago from Colorado Author

By the way, I do agree that WWII played a huge role in turning a struggling economy into a world-changing economy.


crankalicious profile image

crankalicious 3 years ago from Colorado Author

The U.S. was already coming out of the Depression when WWII started. The comment about Keynesian economics is perfectly relevant to your point unless you don't understand Keynesian economics.

By your own logic, you must also think Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush huge failures. After all, spending went sky high under both presidents.

And your obvious animosity toward Obama shows you cannot be objective about him as you are simply spewing the normal Fox News talking points. Rarely can a president's term be evaluated while he's still in office. One can easily argue his economic policies are growing the economy (and one can argue that growth is too slow to be meaningful).

And it was Obama's fault people received bad loans? Who deregulated the banking industry to allow for those loans? To stop them, the banking industry needs regulation and Obama can't push any such legislation through. As for Obamacare, a better health care system has been the focus of a majority of Americans for some time, so any president would likely see passing such legislation as a good thing. Since most of Obamacare's major provisions don't begin until 2014, its effectiveness remains to be seen.


ib radmasters profile image

ib radmasters 3 years ago from Southern California

"Complex situations require complex analysis.

The standard right-wing political opinion that Keynesian economics is a failure across-the-board is juvenile rhetoric, not analysis.

Besides the conclusion that WWII ended the Depression not FDR is a contradiction of the rejection of Keynes.

ib------------------------

This isn't relevant to my comment

It is a fact that WWII brought the US out of the depression

------------------------------------------

And it is way too early to say that Obama is a failure.

ib------------------

Obama's first term as president failed to make any of his goals concerning the Economy, Unemployment and Bad Loans that cause people to lose their home. In addition, his stimulus package didn't spur the recovery of the economy, and the fact that the Federal Reserve said that late last year that until the economy starts to recover, they will invest $40 billion a month into Mortgage Based Securities is a verification of the economy not improving under Obama.

----------------------------------------

Just as easily as you can say that his spending signals a failure (incidentally, the growth of spending under Obama, minus Bush's 2009 budget, is the lowest in 50 years), you can say the economy is growing and he's a a success.

ib----------------------

Tell that to the 23 million people that were still out of work at the end of Obama's first term, and tell the 47 million people on food stamps, and tell all those people that are still losing their homes because of the bad loans. His stimulus package should have helped all of these people but they didn't help them.

In his last year of his first term, President Obama was in full scale reelection mode, he went to over 200 fund raisers, and numerous campaign events, when he wasn't playing his games of golf or shooting pool.

He accomplished his personal goal of reelection at the expense of the people that thought he would help them and the country. There are no facts to support his helping the country.

---------------------------

I wouldn't say either of those things though. That sort of statement is politics, not analysis, not history."

ib--------------------------

This is an ambiguous, vague and meaningless statement that you make here.

What statements were Politics?

What statements weren't analysis?

What statements weren't history?

.


crankalicious profile image

crankalicious 3 years ago from Colorado Author

Complex situations require complex analysis.

The standard right-wing political opinion that Keynesian economics is a failure across-the-board is juvenile rhetoric, not analysis. Besides the conclusion that WWII ended the Depression not FDR is a contradiction of the rejection of Keynes.

And it is way too early to say that Obama is a failure. Just as easily as you can say that his spending signals a failure (incidentally, the growth of spending under Obama, minus Bush's 2009 budget, is the lowest in 50 years), you can say the economy is growing and he's a a success. I wouldn't say either of those things though. That sort of statement is politics, not analysis, not history.


ib radmasters profile image

ib radmasters 3 years ago from Southern California

Without George Washington we wouldn't have a country.


ib radmasters profile image

ib radmasters 3 years ago from Southern California

FDR, LBJ, and BHO are three of a kind.

They all failed, and left us with programs that we didn't want and we didn't need, or that could have been done better without the government involvement.

FDR didn't end the Depression, WWII did.

LBJ escalated the Vietnam conflict into a losing war that went from 15,000 US military to over 550,000 US military and we still lost S Vietnam to the N Vietnam.

BHO put the Obamacare in focus instead of the economy, unemployment and people losing their homes because of bad loans. His three quarter billion dollar stimulus package failed.


QudsiaP1 profile image

QudsiaP1 5 years ago

I think it is difficult to pinpoint anyone in particular as each and everyone probably had both skeletons and medals.


crankalicious profile image

crankalicious 5 years ago from Colorado Author

Thanks for your comments!

When I started to write this hub, I think I would have just said FDR off the top of my head, but the more I thought about it, the more I came to the conclusion that Washington was the greatest. It's all relative, of course, but it's a fun topic to debate.


Paladin_ profile image

Paladin_ 5 years ago from Michigan, USA

I agree completely with your conclusion, crank! Whenever I'm asked this question I always give the same answer: George Washington -- Not merely because he set such excellent precedents, but because he had the potential to set precedents that could have been so much worse.

Washington, more than any of his successors, had the power to mold the presidency into pretty much any form he wished, and we can all be thankful he chose as he did. I daresay that even some of the other presidents I admire, like FDR and JFK, if given the chance Washington had, probably would have made choices that bode less well for our country.

On a side note: Most people don't realize this, but Abraham Lincoln was actually a racist. He opposed slavery solely on principle, as he didn't believe it was right for one person to "own" another as property. But he not only believed in the separation of the races, he considered the white race superior.

Of course, that doesn't take away from his other qualities and accomplishments, but it certainly tarnishes his saintly reputation and makes him more human.

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.


    Click to Rate This Article
    working