Another one of the names that comes up when talking about the most influential president of all time is Abraham Lincoln. It isn’t surprising really. There are only really a few times in the history of the United States that have been truly “make or break” when it came to the survival of the Union. The most obvious time when the nation as in the most danger of collapsing was during the Civil War. Again, it is hard to give Lincoln all the credit for keeping the Union together. In fact it could be argued that Ulysses S. Grant had more of an impact on the outcome of the war. Whether or not that’s true, it is undeniable that the two men worked together to preserve the Union.
However, Lincoln’s impact from a political standpoint is unquestioned. With the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, he set the stage for the 13th Amendment that was ratified in the same year that he was assassinated.
He is perhaps best known for his orations, particularly the Gettysburg Address. In November 1863, he said “that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain–that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom–and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” It is very moving, and is also highly memorable. The beginning of the address is something that almost any high school history student can recite.
It isn’t very often in the history of the United States that the actual fate of the nation rests in the hands of the sitting executive. If the Union had lost the war, who knows what would have happened to the country. And no matter what side of the debate you come down on, it is undeniable that Lincoln had a huge impact on maintaining the union of the states.
There is a lot of controversy surrounding Thomas Jefferson. Whether he was a moral person or not, he had a significant impact on the development of the United States. By the time he became the United States’ third President, he had already accomplished a lot in his life, most notably the Declaration of Independence, which he wrote at the age of 33.
Once he became President, he accomplished quite a bit, both good and bad. On the good side, he was instrumental in the exploration of the rest of the North American continent, specifically that which would later make up the lower 48, as it is called today. In 1803, two years after taking the oath of office, Jefferson purchased nearly 800,000 square miles of land from France. It doubled the size of the country’s territory, and was instrumental in the growth of the nation. For $15 million, he added thirteen state’s worth of land to the nation. In 2011, that would be around $233 million. Still a very good deal.
On the other hand, Jefferson wasn’t so good in terms of foreign policy. He tried to support Napoleon in his quest to defeat Great Britain by increasing exports between the United States and Europe. Unfortunately, the British and French started to seize American trade ships, which caused the export market in the U.S. to collapse. Jefferson tried banning all trade with Europe and Britain, but it led to one of the first economic depressions of the new nation.
Quite a lot of Jefferson’s contribution to the United States that makes him so influential to this day happened after he left office. These included the founding of the first non-secular university (University of Virginia) and helping to found the Library of Congress. As one of the founders of the United States, he was very influential in developing and forming U.S. policy in the formative years of the new nation.
Coming into office, Roosevelt faced the worst economic crisis the nation had ever faced. He is best known for introducing numerous programs in the so-called “New Deal” that were aimed at fixing unemployment and bringing money into the economy. Perhaps the biggest influence FDR had that is still around to this day was the Social Security Administration. Social Security is something that almost every American citizen relies on when they retire.
Another contribution that is still felt today is the regulation of banks and the stock market. Before FDR took office, regulations on both the banking and brokering systems were very lax, which is what led to the collapse of the economy in 1929. And while regulations have been both increased and decreased over the years, they have never gone back to that of the pre-1929 levels. It is commonly accepted by those in Washington that at least some regulation on the financial system is a good thing.
On the other hand, FDR had a lot of failures in his four terms as President. From a domestic standpoint, Roosevelt had a ton of opposition to most of his programs, even if they eventually found success. For every program that was accepted, another was shot down before it was instituted, or was nixed by the Supreme Court.
Outside of the United States, FDR preached staunch isolationism, going so far as to send Japanese immigrants to concentration camps in order to prevent their influence on American society. It is also often said (with not insubstantial evidence) that without World War II, the U.S. economy might not have recovered from the Great Depression, even with the amount of money thrown at it.
Despite his many failures, FDR very popular, and he had a significant influence on the United States’ economy for generations to come.
If you had to ask a history student what they know about Harry S. Truman, you’d likely only hear about how he ended World War II with the use of nuclear weapons. For quite obvious reasons, this is the major ‘accomplishment’ of his presidency. For the first (and hopefully the last) time in world history, nuclear weapons were used in a war setting. It might be argued that this was the most difficult decision ever to be made by a sitting U.S. president.
From a domestic standpoint, not much can be said about Truman. Most of the reasons he is on this list are because of his accomplishments outside of U.S. borders. Truman was influential in establishing the United Nations. It can be said that his presidency kicked off the Cold War with the issuance of the Truman Doctrine, which condemned communism’s spread throughout Europe and the World. His support of the Marshall Plan was instrumental in rebuilding Europe after the war, which also led to the precursor to the European Union. Truman also sent troops to South Korea, where the U.S. still maintains a significant military presence to this day.
Another significant contribution that Truman oversaw during his presidency was the creation of NATO, which is a military support organization that is still very influential to this day.
From a foreign policy perspective, it could be argued that no other president had as much impact on history as Truman did. His influence on the rebuilding of Europe, his efforts to combat the Soviet Union’s spread of communism, and his contributions towards the creation of the United Nations can all be pointed to as very significant contributions that are still important today.
No matter how you feel about the United Nations and its effectiveness, most everyone agrees that it has played an important role in post-World War II history. It was not the first attempt made at a worldwide organization meant to enforce policy internationally. The first was Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations. While it did exist for over twenty years, it was almost immediately seen as a failure as the United States and several influential nations failed to join at all.
So, the question is, why does Wilson make this list? Well, for two reasons. The first is that Wilson led the country through World War I. For over a century, the United States was well-known for ignoring most European wars (which were frequent). Isolationism, exceptionalism, and neutrality are just some of the words used to describe the United States between 1790 and 1917. Of course that didn’t mean that the U.S. stayed out of wars in the Western Hemisphere, but that’s a tale for another time.
Wilson propelled the U.S. into the World War, going against the United States tradition of staying well away from such conflicts. The reason was mostly economical. The U.S. had significant trade with both Germany and France, and when the British and French cut off all trade to Germany, the Germans started to use submarine attacks, which affected the United States, leading Wilson to finally take part in the war. While that is excruciatingly simplified, the German attacks on U.S. trading vessels is largely credited with the American entry into war.
It could be argued that Wilson’s entry into world affairs (specifically those regarding Europe and Great Britain) led to a retreat on those isolationist traditions, because after World War I the U.S. was much more likely to get involved in conflicts overseas. Wilson was also the first president to travel to Europe. While the country would retreat to more isolationist tendencies for the next twenty years or so, the impact of the U.S. in World War I, led by Wilson, would create the precedent needed for future intervention.
The second reason he is on this list is because of his failure to push the League of Nations. By failing fairly spectacularly, he created a blueprint of what not to do when it came time to create the United Nations.