Historians' Favorite U.S. Presidents, Ranked

By Jake SchroederLast Updated Apr 2, 2020 5:28:15 PM ET
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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.

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Harrison was sworn in as president in 1889. Shortly after, he signed the Sherman Antitrust Act into law in an effort to curtail monopolies. He also attempted (unsuccessfully) to protect the civil rights of black Americans. One of his key lasting legacies was the expansion of the country to include the states of Montana, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming and the Dakotas.

#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.

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During his inaugural speech, Garfield said, "The elevation of the Negro race from slavery to the full rights of citizenship is the most important political change we have known since the adoption of the Constitution of 1787." He was assassinated just four months later in July 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.

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Nixon's tenure as commander-in-chief was plagued with scandal, and he was the only acting president to resign from his position. Regardless of how his presidency ended, he made great strides during his time in office. He was the first president to visit the People's Republic of China, and he signed the Paris Peace Accords, ending the U.S.'s involvement in the Vietnam War.

#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.

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Photo Courtesy: National Museum of the United States Air Force

During Coolidge's presidency, the country experienced a period of rapid economic growth, popularly known as the "Roaring 20s." On the flip side, some contemporaries blamed the Great Depression on his laissez faire attitude toward economic regulation. Like others before him, he spoke out for civil rights and appointed African Americans to government positions.

#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.

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Photo Courtesy: Warren K. Leffler/United States Library of Congress' Prints and Photographs/Wikipedia

In 1976, with the nation recovering from Nixon’s scandal, he won the presidency using the slogan "I'll never tell a lie. I'll never avoid a controversial issue." Carter's presidency centered around a promise to make human rights a central concern in the United States' relations with other countries, and he successfully mediated the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt.

#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.

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Photo Courtesy: U.S. News and World Report/Library of Congress/Wikimedia

When Ford took office in 1974, the nation was deep in recession. He implemented a tax cut that targeted low and moderate income families. As a result, the rate of growth of real GDP averaged more than 4% during his term. In addition, the rate of inflation decreased by more than half during his presidency.

#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.

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Taft's life-long dream was to be Chief Justice of the United States of America — and he was on track to achieve it. It was only after some urging by Teddy Roosevelt that he ran for president in 1908. He easily won, but as a stickler for the law, he rubbed many fellow politicians the wrong way. He finally achieved his dream of becoming chief justice in 1921.

#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.

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Cleveland started his career in politics as district attorney for Erie County. By 1882, he was governor of New York. In 1885, he was elected to his first term as president, and he served again from 1893 to 1897. He is credited with ending the Apache wars and establishing the ICC (Interstate Commerce Commission) to end monopolistic practices in the railroad industry.

#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.

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In 1868, Grant was elected the 18th President of the United States at 46 years of age. Although he was politically inexperienced, he achieved many successes, including ratifying the 15th Amendment (gave blacks the right to vote) and establishing the National Parks Service. He is also known for making Christmas a federal holiday.

#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.

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In 1808, Adams broke with his father's Federalist party and resigned from his Senate seat to become a Democratic-Republican. In 1824, after years of experience, he was elected president. Some don’t consider his presidency successful, but he made major strides toward modernizing U.S. infrastructure and established treaties of reciprocity with several nations, including Mexico.

#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.

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In 1963, Bush became chairman of the Harris County Republican Party. He was later elected to the U.S. House of Representatives before serving as Ronald Reagan's vice president for two terms and being elected president in 1988. During his term, Bush signed the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act, giving people with handicaps fair access to facilities and prohibiting discrimination against them.

#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.

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In 1788, Adams became the nation's first vice president under George Washington. Eight years later, he won the Federalist nomination for president and was elected by a narrow margin. During his presidency, Adams sent a delegation to France and ended the ongoing Quasi-War.

#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.

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In 1828, Jackson beat incumbent John Adams to win the presidential election. He was the first president to live outside either Massachusetts or Virginia. During his term, he founded the Democratic Party, destroyed the Second Bank of the United States and negotiated a successful trade agreement with Great Britain.

#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.

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In 1808, Madison became president himself, defeating Federalist Charles Pinckney by a wide margin. In 1812, he was re-elected for a second term. During his time in office, Madison successfully led the country through the War of 1812 and brought the budget back into surplus.

#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.

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After nearly 14 years in Congress, McKinley ran for president in 1896. He won the popular vote by the largest margin in 25 years. During his time as president, McKinley led the country to a decisive victory in the Spanish-American War, enabled the annexation of Hawaii and pursued a strong open-door policy with China. He was assassinated in 1901.

#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.

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Elected U.S. president for two consecutive terms, Clinton may be most remembered for his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. However, the young president achieved several notable accomplishments, including signing into law the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 and implementing the controversial "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy for LGBT military personnel.

#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.

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After many years in various governmental roles, Polk became president in 1845 and was immediately thrust into a war with Mexico after the annexation of Texas. The eventual U.S. victory led to the acquisition of large territories in the Southwest and along the Pacific coast and the creation of the Department of the Interior.

#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.

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His accomplishments during the Revolution were numerous, including fighting at the Battle of Trenton. In 1820, he was elected president with more than 80% of the popular vote. He is best known for the Monroe Doctrine, which stated the U.S. would regard further efforts by European nations to colonize North America as acts of aggression.

#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.

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In November 2008, Obama defeated Republican presidential nominee John McCain to become president. During his tenure, Obama's administration pulled the country out of economic crisis with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), an $800 billion stimulus spending and tax cut bill.

#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.

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In 1912, Wilson was elected President of the United States after just two years in the political arena. Despite his relative inexperience, he led America through World War I and crafted the Treaty of Versailles’ "Fourteen Points." Wilson also created the Federal Reserve, passed the Clayton Antitrust Act and supported the 19th Amendment, which allowed women to vote.

#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.

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Elected vice president in 1961, he had an impact once he became president. During his time in office, Johnson initiated the "Great Society" social service programs and signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law.

#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.

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In 1966, Reagan won the governorship of California, and he became President of the United States in 1980. Through the Reagan Doctrine, which stated the U.S. would provide open and covert support to anti-communist forces in Soviet-backed communist governments, he changed the course of the Cold War. He also played a large role in reducing unemployment and inflation.

#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.

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Kennedy started in politics in 1946 when he ran for Congress. In 1960, he won the presidential election by a razor-thin margin. His greatest accomplishments while in office included creating the Peace Corps and negotiating the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty with Great Britain and the Soviet Union.

#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.

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Elected to office in 1800, Jefferson's presidency was remarkably productive and accomplished. During his time as president, he defeated pirates from North Africa during the Barbary War, doubled the size of the United States by successfully brokering the Louisiana Purchase and lowered the national debt from $80 million to $57 million.

#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.

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When Roosevelt died of a stroke just a few months later, Truman was sworn into office. He is credited with eliminating the communist threat in Greece and Turkey as well as authoring the Marshall Plan, which stimulated the economy in post-World War II Europe. He also signed the charter ratifying the United Nations.

#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.

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In 1952, after retiring from active duty, he won the presidential election by a landslide, becoming the nation's 34th commander-in-chief. During his time in office, Eisenhower orchestrated the New Look policy, which stated the U.S. "will consider nuclear weapons as available for use as other munitions," effectively deterring the Soviet Union from taking Cold War action.

#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.

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In 1901, Roosevelt became vice president to McKinley after two years as the Governor of New York. After the president's assassination, Roosevelt became the youngest man to assume the U.S. presidency. He is known for his anti-monopoly policies and ecological conservationism. In 1906, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in negotiating the end of the Russo-Japanese War.

#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.

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Photo Courtesy: Office of War Information/Library of Congress/National Museum of the U.S. Navy

At age 28, he ran for New York state senate. In 1932, he became President of the United States. During his unprecedented four-term presidency, he led the nation through the Great Depression and World War II and enacted a series of domestic programs, collectively known as the "New Deal."

#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.

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Washington was the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolution. He was elected the first President of the United States in 1789 and held the office for eight years. During his tenure, Washington established a six-member Supreme Court and other elements of American government, including the cabinet system and the traditional inaugural address.

#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.

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Photo Courtesy: Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress/Wikipedia

Many Southerners (correctly) believed that he was an abolitionist who would not protect their interests. During his tenure, Lincoln signed the Homestead Act, allowing poor people to buy land, and established the Department of Agriculture. Most famously, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which abolished slavery in the U.S.