Every few years the United States’ leading historians vote to rank all the people who have served as president. For many years, the top five have remained consistent. In order, they are Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson and Harry Truman. This article will describe the presidential accomplishments of each of these five men that made them America’s greatest presidents.
1. Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth American president, served from March 1861 until April 1865. Lincoln assumed the presidency at the worst time of American history. Several southern states had seceded from the union. Lincoln had to lead the country in a terrible civil war which he did with courage and wisdom. On June 1, 1963, he gave the Gettysburg Address, one of the most quoted speeches in American history. It stated the country’s dedication to nationalism, equal rights, liberty and democracy. On September 22, 1863 he issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves. The thirteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution officially ended slavery. Unlike many members of his own party, he did not wish to punish the south but wanted to reunite the country. Tragically, just six days after the surrender of the commanding general of the Confederate Army, President Lincoln was assassinated. It was shortly after his re-election. Due to his keeping the union in tact and ending slavery, historians rank him the greatest of all American presidents.
2. George Washington
George Washington served as the nation’s first president from 1789 to 1797 when he refused to run for a third term. When Washington assumed the presidency, the government – particularly the executive and the judiciary – had not yet been established. The first president moved quickly to fill the voids. By the Judiciary Act of 1789, a six member Supreme Court was created. The president then formed a cabinet consisting of a Secretary of State, a Secretary of the Treasury, a Secretary of War, a Post Master General and an Attorney General. Washington signed the Postal Service Act on February 20, 1792, creating the U.S. post office. During his presidency, Washington:
Paid off the debt of the nation and all of the states.
Implemented a good tax system.
Created a national bank.
With the Jay Treaty of 1795, guaranteed a decade of peace and profitable trade.
Created a national university.
Founded a capital city.
Promoted a spirit of nationalism.
For putting the nation on the road to becoming the greatest democracy in the world, historians rank George Washington as the second greatest president in the nation’s history.
3. Franklin Delano Roosevelt
When Franklin Roosevelt was sworn in as president in 1933, the country was in the midst of the Great Depression: 1/3 of the nation was unemployed, agriculture lay destitute, factories were idle, many homes were being foreclosed, businesses were going bankrupt and the banking system was on the edge of collapse. President Roosevelt fought the Depression with innovative, brilliant devises inclulding Social Security, unemployment insurance, bank deposit insurance, work programs, aiding home owners refinance their mortgage, bringing electricity to rural America and regulating the investment industry. Between 1932 ands 1936, as a result of these programs: national income grew by over 50%, six million new jobs were created, unemployment was reduced by one – third and industrial production doubled. On December 7, 1941 Japan attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, inflicting enormous damage. The country was involved in W.W.II – a war the nation was not prepared to fight. President Roosevelt, by his brilliant and strong leadership, led the nation to victory. Tragically, he died less than a month before Germany surrendered and four months before Japan surrendered.
4. Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson, the country’s third president, is best remembered by most Americans as the writer of the Declaration of Independence. But historians rate him to be the fourth greatest president for his accomplishments when he held that office. President Jefferson’s most important act was the Louisiana Purchase. He wanted that land largely because he was concerned that France and Spain would block access to the part of New Orleans which America badly needed for its trade. On April 30, 1803 the Louisiana Purchase was completed. The U.S. paid a total of 15 million dollars (219 million in 2010 dollars). In return, the U.S. received 828,000 square miles of land, doubling the territory of the country. The territory obtained contains all or part of 14 current states and is about 23% of the nation’s present territory. Further, Jefferson sponsored the Lewis and Clark Expedition from 1804 to 1806 to explore the vast territory of the west.
5. Harry Truman
Vice President Harry Truman became president on April 12 1945 when President Roosevelt died. The war in Europe ended less than one month later but Japan still had to be defeated. The new president immediately had to make one of the most difficult decisions any American president ever had to make – whether or not to use the atomic bomb to end the war. The alternative was an invasion of Japan. Our military estimated the invasion would result in at least ¼ million American casualties. Truman decided that saving many American lives overshadowed the horror of using such a terrible weapon. On August 5 and atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Four days later, a second one was dropped on the seaport of Nagasaki. On August 14, Japan surrendered. The war was over but Europe was devastated and millions of Europeans faced starvation. Truman and his closest advisers developed an enormous plan to help Europe survive. Officially known as the European Recovery Program, it is most commonly referred to as the Marshall Plan. The Marshall Plan cost 17 billion dollars and 17 nations took part. Winston Churchill called the plan “the most unsordid act in human history”. For his ending World War Two, for his part in reviving post-war Europe, for his recognition of the new state of Israel, for his organizing a new Defense Department, for his creation of NATO and for his role in preventing much of Europe from going Communist, historians rate Harry Truman as the fifth greatest president.
Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy Basler, The Abraham Lincoln Association, 1953
West’s Encyclopedia of American Law
FDR by Jean Smith, Random House, 2007
Truman by David McCullough, Simon & Schuster, 1992