10 of the Most Influential Presidents of the United States
Of the men who have occupied the office of president of the United States, historians agree on just a few who can be ranked among the most influential. Some were tested by domestic crises, others by international conflict, but all left their mark on history.
If not for Abraham Lincoln (March 4, 1861 to April 15, 1865), who presided during the American Civil War, the U.S. might look completely different today. Lincoln guided the Union through four bloody years of conflict, abolished slavery with the Emancipation Proclamation, and at the war's end laid the foundation for reconciliation with the defeated South.
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.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (March 4, 1933 to April 12, 1945) was the nation's longest-serving president. Elected during the depths of the Great Depression, he held office until his death in 1945, only months before the end of World War II. During his tenure, the role of the federal government was greatly expanded.
Depression-era federal programs like Social Security, enacted during Roosevelt's presidency, 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.
Known as the father of the nation, George Washington (April 30, 1789 to March 4, 1797) served as the first president of the United States. 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.
Over the course of two terms, Washington established many of the traditions the office still observes today. Deeply concerned that the office of president not be seen as that of a monarch, but as one of the people, Washington insisted that 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, Washington, D.C.
4. Thomas Jefferson
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Thomas Jefferson (March 4, 1801 to March 4, 1809), the third president of the United States, also played an important 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.
5. Andrew Jackson
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Andrew Jackson (March 4, 1829 to 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 the presidency in a landslide.
While he was 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 the forced removal of Native Americans east of the Mississippi. Thousands perished along the so-called Trail of Tears under the relocation programs that Jackson implemented.
6. Theodore Roosevelt
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Theodore Roosevelt (September 14, 1901 to March 4, 1909) came to power after the sitting president, William McKinley was assassinated. Elected at age 42, Roosevelt was the youngest man to take office. During his two terms, Roosevelt used the presidency to pursue a strong domestic and foreign policy.
Roosevelt implemented 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 pursued an aggressive foreign policy, mediating the end of the Russo-Japanese War and developing the Panama Canal.
7. Harry S. Truman
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Harry S. Truman (April 12, 1945 to January 20, 1953) came to power after serving as vice president during Franklin Roosevelt's final term in office. Following Roosevelt'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 multi-billion-dollar Marshall Plan to rebuild war-torn Europe. In 1950, the nation became mired in the Korean War, which would outlast Truman's presidency.
8. Woodrow Wilson
Woodrow Wilson (March 4, 1913 to 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.
James K. Polk (March 4, 1845 to March 4, 1849) served one term as president. During his time in office, Polk increased the size of the United States more than any president other than Jefferson through the acquisition of California and New Mexico as a result of the Mexican-American War.
He also settled the nation's dispute with Great Britain over the United States' northwest border, giving the U.S. Washington and Oregon and giving Canada British Columbia. During his tenure, the U.S. issued its first postage stamp, and the foundation for the Washington Monument was laid.
During Dwight Eisenhower's (January 20, 1953 to January 20, 1961) tenure, the conflict in Korea ceased, while the U.S. experienced tremendous economic growth. Several milestones in the Civil Rights Movement took place during Eisenhower's term, 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 stance in Europe and Asia, expanding the nation's nuclear arsenal and supporting the government of South Vietnam.