Historians' Favorite U.S. Presidents, Ranked
Political ideologies are subjective and often divisive. The candidate you vote for typically supports your personal ideas and possesses your values. That means choosing the "best" president in U.S. history is somewhat arbitrary when letting the people decide.
However, historians make determinations based on specific data, and they tend to agree on which leaders deserve to rank at the top. Their objective and balanced opinions take into account important elements like crisis leadership, international relations and economic management. With that criteria in mind, here are the 30 presidents that rank the highest.
#30 Benjamin Harrison
Benjamin Harrison was the 23rd President of the United States and the grandson of (former) President William Henry Harrison, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. The younger Harrison joined the Republican party in 1856, but his political aspirations were interrupted by war. He resumed his career in 1865, after serving under William Tecumseh Sherman.
#29 James A. Garfield
James A. Garfield, the 20th President of the United States, was born in 1831 in Ohio. As a young man, he attempted a variety of careers, including professor of ancient languages, lawyer and minister, before finally settling on politics. In 1859, he was elected to the Ohio State Legislature on the Republican ticket. Two decades later, he became president in 1881.
#28 Richard M. Nixon
Richard Nixon was a Republican congressman who served as vice president under Dwight D. Eisenhower. He became the 37th President of the United States — but not before losing to Kennedy on his first run in 1960.
#27 Calvin Coolidge
Calvin Coolidge's political career began in 1898 when he was elected to the Northampton City Council in Massachusetts. He quickly rose through the ranks, from city solicitor to clerk of courts to senator. In 1920, he was elected vice president but then became president in 1923 after President Warren G. Harding's death.
#26 Jimmy Carter
Jimmy Carter was the 39th President of the United States and also a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize (2002). As a young man, he attended the Naval Academy in Maryland and excelled as a submariner. He also ran the family peanut farm and began a promising career in politics.
#25 Gerald R. Ford Jr.
Gerald Ford became president by default: He was sworn in as the 38th President of the United States one day after Nixon's resignation in 1974. The following month, he pardoned his predecessor — a move that caused many to question his integrity in the coming years. Still, his brief presidency was filled with accomplishments.
#24 William H. Taft
William Howard Taft, the 27th President of the United States, is the only person to ever serve as both a U.S. chief justice and president. Born into a prominent political family in 1857, he pursued a career in law from the beginning.
#23 Grover Cleveland
Grover Cleveland is the only U.S. president to serve two non-consecutive terms. The son of a Presbyterian minister, he started working to support his family at the age of 16 after his father died. His work at the New York Institute for Special Education became his primary concern later in life.
#22 Ulysses S. Grant
If ever a president could be called a hero, it was Ulysses S. Grant. A brilliant strategist, Grant served as commander of the Union armies during the American Civil War. His dogged determination to bring down the Confederate armies directly led to the surrender of General Robert E. Lee in April 1865.
#21 John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams was the sixth President of the United States and the son of John Adams, the second president. He was involved in politics from an early age. At just 10 years old, he helped his father secure aid for the Revolution. By 1793, he was U.S. Minister to Holland under George Washington.
#20 George H. W. Bush
George H. W. Bush was the 41st President of the United States and served as vice president under Ronald Reagan. Prior to his political career, Bush enlisted in the U.S. Navy and fought in WWII. He served as a combat pilot in a total of 58 missions and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service.
#19 John Adams
John Adams was the Second President of the United States. As a young man, he earned a scholarship to study at Harvard University — where he earned a bachelor's degree and a master's degree — and was later admitted to the bar. In 1774, he served on the First Continental Congress and helped draft the Declaration of Independence.
#18 Andrew Jackson
Known as "Old Hickory," Andrew Jackson was the seventh President of the United States. He gained notoriety during the War of 1812 when he led U.S. troops on a five-month campaign against the Creek Indians. Jackson's victory at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend led to the procurement of millions of acres of land.
#17 James Madison
The fourth President of the United States, James Madison is known as the "Father of the Constitution." Born in 1751 in Port Conway, Virginia, Madison had a long, successful political career. Prior to becoming president, he wrote the first drafts of the U.S. Constitution, sponsored the Bill of Rights and established the Democratic-Republican Party with President Thomas Jefferson.
#16 William McKinley Jr.
William McKinley Jr., the 25th President of the United States, served in the Union Army during the Civil War under Rutherford Hayes. Following his time in the Army, McKinley opened his own law firm in Ohio but felt drawn to service in the Republican Party.
#15 Bill Clinton
Bill Clinton was the 42nd President of the United States (and the second to be impeached). In 1978, he was elected Governor of Arkansas and served for multiple terms. During the 1992 Democratic primaries, he easily defeated his competitors to become the party's nominee for the presidency.
#14 James K. Polk
A true small-town boy, James Polk was born in 1795 and went on to become the 11th President of the United States. During his early years, Polk went to the University of North Carolina and later started his own law practice. He became friends with Andrew Jackson while serving in the Tennessee legislature.
#13 James Monroe
The fifth President of the United States, James Madison fought under George Washington and studied law with Thomas Jefferson. He had intended to become an attorney, but he dropped out of law school to take part in the American Revolution. He joined the Continental Army and became an officer in 1776.
#12 Barack Obama
Barack Obama was the 44th President of the United States and the first African American commander-in-chief. Born and raised in Hawaii, he graduated from Columbia University and Harvard Law School. He later served on the Illinois State Senate, where he was chairman of the Illinois Senate's Health and Human Services Committee.
#11 Woodrow Wilson
Woodrow Wilson, the 28th U.S. president, was an academic at heart. As a young adult, he earned multiple degrees before becoming a professor at Princeton University and eventually its president. Eight years later, he became governor of New Jersey, where he was a darling of Progressives.
#10 Lyndon B. Johnson
Lyndon Johnson became the 36th president in 1963 following the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Commonly known as "LBJ," Johnson came from a political family: His father was a Texas congressman. He didn't do well academically in school, but he excelled in debates and campus politics. After graduating, LBJ won an appointment as legislative secretary to Texas Congressman Richard M. Kleberg.
#9 Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan appeared in more than 50 films during his acting career and ultimately hosted a weekly television drama series The General Electric Theater, where he led pro-business discussions and spoke out against excessive government regulations and wasteful spending. The show was the start of his political career.
#8 John F. Kennedy
John F. Kennedy, the 35th U.S. president, came from a fabled political family. His grandfather, John F. Fitzgerald, was a congressman and the mayor of Boston. His father, Joseph Kennedy Sr., was chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. JFK himself served in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate before becoming president.
#7 Thomas Jefferson
As a Founding Father of the United States and author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson deserves a high-ranking spot on this list. Before becoming the nation's third president, he was the first secretary of state and the second vice president (under John Adams), as well as a member of the Virginia House of Delegates.
#6 Harry S. Truman
Harry Truman is one of the only U.S. presidents who didn’t have a college degree and the only one to serve on the battlefield during WWI. Almost immediately after returning home, he began a career in politics. After serving as a state senator for several years, Truman was selected as FDR's running mate in 1944.
#5 Dwight D. Eisenhower
Dwight D. Eisenhower came from humble beginnings. As a young man, he landed an appointment to the United States Military Academy in West Point. From there, he embarked on a prestigious military career.
#4 Theodore Roosevelt
Theodore Roosevelt graduated from Harvard University magna cum laude in 1880 before enrolling at Columbia Law School. However, he was much more interested in politics, and he quickly left school to join the New York State Assembly. From there, he steadily worked his way up the political ladder.
#3 Franklin D. Roosevelt
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the 32nd American president and the only one elected to four terms (special war-related circumstances). FDR spent much of his adult life in a wheelchair after a bout of polio in 1921. A privileged child, he was educated at home until he was 14 and later received his degree from Harvard in only three years.
#2 George Washington
Most of the stories about George Washington's childhood are more myth than reality. As a young man, he became involved with the Virginia militia, but it was not until 1767 — and the protest of the Townshend Acts — that he became part of the Colonial resistance.
#1 Abraham Lincoln
Coming in at number one is Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States. Lincoln is regarded as one of America's greatest heroes due to his rise from humble beginnings to his role leading and preserving a nation and emancipating slaves. Although Lincoln was elected to the presidency in 1860, he only received 40% of the popular vote.