There have been numerous presidents since America broke away from the British Empire, yet a few have made policies which continue to affect the nation to this day for better or worse. Those acts are what have led to their inclusion on this list of the top ten most influential US presidents in history.
10. Thomas Jefferson
Oddly enough, sometimes the most influential US presidents led rather lacklustre terms. Jefferson reduced military spending, yet also cut national debt by a third. He kept the country out of the Napoleonic Wars and added Louisiana to the Union. His place at number ten comes down to his penning of the Declaration of Independence which turned a tax revolt into the birth of a nation.
9. Abraham Lincoln
Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation remains one of the most misinterpreted documents in American history. Declaring all slaves within the rebelling states (or portions therein) to be free in the middle of the Civil War, this decree did not free a single slave in Union-held territory, nor did it have any direct effect on Confederate slaves. The Proclamation did, however, lead to the inclusion of blacks in the military.
8. James Madison
Often called the “Father of the Constitution”, Madison was one of the authors of the Federalist Papers and helped draft the Bill of Rights. Unfortunately, his declaration of war in 1812 led to the British storming Washington and burning the Capitol. His wife is noted for rescuing the famous painting of Washington as she fled the White House.
7. Andrew Jackson
Sometimes, the most influential US presidents are also the most controversial. Andrew Jackson was infamous for his duels and White House parties. As a soldier, he invaded and claimed Florida, but was forced by Congress to give it back. Jackson will also remain infamous for his bias against the Native Americans, which led to the forced migration of all Natives east of the Mississippi river, better known as the Trail of Tears. His opposition to Adams led to the formation of the Democratic party (and inspired its famous symbol).
6. Woodrow Wilson
Wilson was better known for keeping the United States out of the Great War until his second term. However, he pushed several important changes through Congress. It was because of him that new laws on child labour and limited work hours for railroad workers were passed, as well as the formation of the Federal Trade Commission and the League of Nations (a failed precursor to the United Nations).
5. James Polk
Polk was a Jacksonian politician most noted for peacefully negotiating with Britain to extend Canada’s borders along the 49th parallel. He was also responsible for the Mexican War, in which the nation grew to include more than half of the Mexican territories. This sudden expansion would later be a contributing factor in the formation of the Confederacy.
4. Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan‘s charisma led to major treaties with Russia and his landmark Berlin Wall speech. He created major reforms in the economy and declared war upon international terrorism. Despite a growing deficit, his administration cut taxes and government spending, leading to the longest recorded period of peacetime prosperity in US history.
3. John F. Kennedy
Charismatic and progressive, Kennedy would no doubt have a higher position had he not been assassinated. His famous inaugural speech changed the way Americans viewed their role in national affairs. He launched numerous economic programs which kept the nation moving, and had even made plans to deal with areas known for privation and poverty.
Of course, Kennedy is best known for being the president who put man on the Moon, as well as the one who faced the Cuban Missile Crisis and left the world with the Test Ban Treaty, slowing down the nuclear arms race and preventing a repeat of Cuba for future presidents.
2. Theodore Roosevelt
One of the most influential US presidents is better known for being the namesake of the teddy bear than for his policies. However, despite perpetually poor health, Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt did more for his country than perhaps any other. As a president, he earned the title “Trust Buster” for combating corrupt businesses and won the Nobel Peace Prize for mediating the Russo-Japanese War. His famous quote, “Speak softly and carry a big stick” could be echoed in numerous deeds, such as sending the Great White Fleet on a goodwill tour of the world.
Beyond his military and foreign policies, Theodore Roosevelt also pushed for internal change. His firm beliefs in conservation led to the vast expansion of national forests and several public works projects.
1. Franklin Delano Roosevelt
The second Roosevelt to be elected was not only one of the most influential US presidents, but his work is on every map in the country. Elected at the height of the Great Depression with approximately thirty million unemployed and most banks closed down, FDR boldly enacted a number of programs, under the New Deal. These called for relief and reform, protecting agriculture and business from collapse.
FDR eliminated the Federal gold standard, and created Social Security. In 1935, he created the Works Progress (later Work Projects) Administration. This program provided jobs for three million workers at its height and nearly eight million during its life. The WPA was responsible for highways, roads, buildings, parks, and numerous other key elements of the national infrastructure and public works before it closed.