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Every election season, the US must reflect on what it actually takes for a candidate to become president, and a good one at that. After all, history has shown that when the greatest US presidents first set foot in the oval office, their work was just beginning. These presidents worked across party lines, changed policies, and made the American people proud to live in their country. We've had bad leaders and good leaders, but this list suggests that it's something very different to go down as one of the very greatest US presidents.
Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953–61)
Dwight D. Eisenhower endured what was quite possibly one of the most stressful presidencies of all time and he handled those international tensions gracefully. An army hero before becoming president, he commanded teams of men in World War I and II, and was even credited with the planning and execution of D-Day in Normandy. During his two terms as president, Eisenhower used his military strategy and diplomacy to end the Korean War in 1953—still within the first year of his presidency, mind you.
Eisenhower ranks as one of the greatest US presidents for his domestic policies as much as he does his international ones. He created a cabinet of advisers known for good business dealings rather than selecting positions to reward friends or political party members (as numerous predecessors and successors are suspected of having done). He worked to bring Americans together by rallying against the McCarthyism that was at the time causing a deep rift within the American population. He also established NASA as a way to compete with Russia during the Cold War, so his contributions to global society is universally recognized. "I like Ike" was the mantra that drove his campaigns, and the sentiment still rings true today.
James K. Polk (1845–49)
James Knox Polk accomplished more in one term than most presidents have in two; the only reason he didn't have a second term was because he didn't want to run again. Polk oversaw the most significant territorial expansion of the country to date (it grew by more than one-third), all while staunchly avoiding a war with Britain. His fight for California and New Mexico did lead to a little thing called the Mexican-American War but Polk persisted, and under his watch, America reached from the Atlantic to the Pacific for the first time.
James Madison (1809–17)
Hailed as the Father of the Constitution, James Madison helped compose the Federalist Papers, which convinced many people of the overwhelming need for the Constitution and proved his competence as Secretary of State, all before he began his tenure as one the greatest US presidents to date. This Founding Father worked to secure freedom of speech for future generations.
Under Madison's administration Americans fought the British again during The War of 1812. The war generated an ethos of patriotism and inspired the writing of our national anthem "The Star-Spangled Banner." The war's end saw political parties come together again—a miracle in and of itself—and celebrate being American. It was one of those unique periods in political history where national purpose and a desire for unity trumped political discord, a time fondly dubbed "The Era of Good Feelings."
William Howard Taft (1909–13)
Taft deserves his spot in the rankings of greatest US presidents because he is the only person to have ever served as both president and as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Although he did not particularly care for politics and much preferred working in the judicial branch, his administration left a notable impact. He raised national revenue, worked with other countries to create trade policies to benefit America financially, and helped workers by creating a corporate income tax and vetoing laws that would have been unfair toward the poor and minorities.
While in office, Taft operated with profound integrity, and refused to stretch the limits of his presidential power. While serving as chief justice following his time in office, he continued to work within the law to improve America. He presided over precedent-setting cases that defended the need for search warrants in law enforcement, upheld women's right to vote and protected consumers from false advertising. Reportedly, Taft preferred being chief justice so much that he once wrote "I don't remember I was ever President." Good thing we do.
Woodrow Wilson (1913–21)
Woodrow Wilson's presidency began with World War I. Despite being president during a fearsome and tense time, he was also awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919 for his work in capitalizing on the end of the war to create the League of Nations. His goal was for countries around the world to have a forum to diplomatically discuss their opinions so that world war would never happen again.
Wilson was victorious on the home front, too; his presidency resulted in some of the more notable amendments to the Constitution. Wilson supported women gaining the right to vote, and worked closely with Congress to ratify the 19th Amendment into law. He initially opposed the Volstead Act (18th Amendment) which proposed the enforcement of prohibition, but the law was ultimately passed over his veto; however, a great president like Wilson respected the legislative process and thus ended up supporting it.
Thomas Jefferson (1801-09)
No list of the greatest US presidents would be complete without Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, the man who bears most of the responsibility for the Declaration of Independence in 1776. He is also responsible for another one of America's largest expansions: the Louisiana Purchase. He sent Lewis and Clark out to voyage into the far reaches of the continent and established new American territory.
Jefferson must also be celebrated for his efforts to keep America out of more European wars and his efforts to lower the national debt. After two successful presidencies, Jefferson stepped down and did not run a third time, helping to set the precedent for the two-term limit.
Theodore Roosevelt (1901–09)
"Speak softly and carry a big stick" became an iconic phrase thanks to Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt. The sentiment rightfully describes his behavior as president; he was strategically cautious in working toward peace while making clear to world powers that he'd be willing to use force if necessary. As a result, Roosevelt built up the strength of the national navy and made deals with Japan that benefitted both countries and ended the Russo-Japanese War, a feat for which Roosevelt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Jefferson also wielded his presidential power in pursuit of economic interests, breaking up large companies that held too much power. Roosevelt became known as the "trust buster" for his emphasis on checking the power of massive and very rich conglomerates, and worked to increase worker wages.
Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933–45)
Franklin Delano Roosevelt—FDR—deeply admired his cousin Teddy, motivating him to follow in his footsteps to the White House. FDR served four terms in a presidency that spanned the Great Depression through World War II. Right from the get-go, FDR created agencies intended to employ the millions of Americans looking for work and to overhaul banks to put an end to the Great Depression. He also raised taxes on the wealthy and created the Social Security program; actually, he implemented many programs over the years, many of which have endured through the past century.
Roosevelt led America through World War II once it entered after the attacks on Pearl Harbor. He kept America working with the Allies to defeat Nazi Germany and began the tireless work of cooperating with other countries to found the United Nations. FDR will always be known for supporting the American people and providing a symbol of strength, be it through his economic support, military might, and the beloved "fireside chats" he used to reach out to the people.
George Washington (1789–97)
Of course George Washington was the first and one of the greatest US presidents of all time. Without his strong leadership early on, the United States may have never broken away from the British or developed into the world power it is today; as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army he impassioned the fledgling colonies and his soldiers to rebel against unfair taxation from the British and establish independence. Under his leadership after the war, a team was assembled to create the Constitution in order to replace the Articles of Confederation and the rest is, well, history.
Washington's influence persisted even after he stepped down as president; he built a an ideological foundation and a team of leaders strong enough to shape and cultivate the United States of America. He appointed the first chief justice of the Supreme Court and created a cabinet filled with people like Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. George Washington truly earned his legacy as the "Father Of His Country."
Abraham Lincoln (1861–65)
Abraham Lincoln will forever be a fixture on this list because of his efforts to unify the United States of America against inconceivable odds. His presidency came at a time when states wanted to secede, an idea that Lincoln opposed and denounced as illegal. Lincoln saw America through its Civil War and made sure that it came out the other side still United.
Lincoln was able to bring Republicans and Democrats together to support the Union. His speeches—most notably the Gettysburg Address—reassuring Americans that their sacrifices would not be in vain and that cooperation and goodwill were pivotal to secure the country's prosperity. His words still very much ring true today. And of course, he will be celebrated forever for his Emancipation Proclamation, which ended slavery and upheld the fundamental right to freedom for all. Ultimately, Honest Abe's progressive thinking was his death warrant and led to the tragic assassination of an all-time great US president and profoundly virtuous individual.