9 Underrated U.S. Presidents Who Deserve More Credit Than They Get

The Fourth of July signals the go-ahead to indulge in hardcore American pride, and no celebration of pure patriotism would be complete without a look back at the leaders who shaped this country.

The problem is, we normally take this opportunity to repeat the familiar refrains about Lincoln and Washington that we’ve been hearing since kindergarten. Instead, we’d like to revisit presidents who, while they may not have defeated the British or preserved the Union, did a lot more than they get credit for.

1. James Monroe

Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, most people agree that the primary problems with elected officials in recent years boil down to two key failings: the inability to make friends with the other party, and the inability to get a single damn thing done.

James Monroe didn’t have either of those problems. During his tenure as leader of the free world, he created a successful bipartisan cabinet, proving that politicians actually can get along. He also bought Florida, paving the way for centuries of spring breaks to come, admitted five new states to the Union, and managed to keep control of the economy after the Panic of 1819.

Dude also survived a musket shot to the shoulder. He deserves at least a little respect for that alone, right?

2. William McKinley

For someone who didn’t get a lot of coverage in your high school history class, William McKinley has a pretty impressive resume. He served in the Civil War, won the Spanish-American War, and managed to drag the country out of a depression over the course of his first term in office. Those things this country hasn’t been able to achieve in over a decade? He did them in four years. Sadly, he was assassinated before beginning his second term.

3. James Garfield

The one fact most Americans remember about James Garfield is that he was assassinated after only a few months in office. That’s always a bit of a downer, but especially so in his case, given the accomplishments he made in office.

Serving at a time when racial tensions in the country were still boiling over in the wake of the Civil War, Garfield focused on expanding civil rights, appointing African Americans to major government roles. He also took on the favoritism that was allowing politicians to put their friends in civil service jobs.

On the one hand, that’s the reason you have to take a test now if you want one of those jobs. On the other hand, that’s the reason the people who do have those jobs don’t completely suck at them.

4. James K. Polk

James K. Polk is the name on this list most likely to make you say “Who?” He’s rarely mentioned when we talk about presidents at all, whether good or bad. That said, many historians agree that he ought to get much more attention than the general public usually allots him.

In an age when candidates make promises we know they won’t keep, it’s strange to look back at a guy like Polk, who did what he said he was going to do. He won the Mexican-American war, opened the U.S. Naval Academy and the Smithsonian, avoided a war with Britain over the Oregon Country, and got people to support his ideas. All this happened in just one term, not because he wasn’t re-elected, but because he promised not to run for a second term, and kept that promise. This was a guy who came into the role with a clear vision of what needed to get done, and executed that vision.

He also the reason we have the Southwest United States. If you’re a fan of Tex-Mex cuisine, thank this guy.

5. Ulysses S. Grant

Ulysses S. Grant is one of those “gets more hate than he deserves” kind of presidents. For decades, historians didn’t look too kindly on his time in office, which was marked by scandal and accusations of corruption. And he already gets enough love for the Civil War, right?

Not exactly. Grant took office at a time when the country was the political equivalent of two exes who’d been forced to move in with one another, and the situation wasn’t as sitcom-friendly as that premise sounds. Nevertheless, Grant did his best to take control, taking aim at the Ku Klux Klan with the Enforcement Act of 1871, focusing on voting rights, and working towards more peaceful treatment of Native Americans.

Plus, the biggest scandal plaguing his presidency was the Whiskey Scandal, which, if nothing else, sounds like a pretty hip band name. And let's not forget Ta-Nehisi Coates likes him, which should be enough for anyone.

6. Richard Nixon

Hear us out. Yes, Richard Nixon was a crook, and yes, he deserves all the hate he still gets for Watergate. That said, there were indirect benefits to this moment in the country’s history. Up until this point, the belief that we should not trust the leader of the country could, in some company, be viewed as a controversial opinion. Watergate allowed us to shift to a much more skeptical point-of-view on elected officials. Sure this might mean we’re more cynical and perhaps far too quick to accuse presidents of being criminals, but on the other hand, a certain degree of distrust is healthy in the president-population relationship.

Also, in all fairness, Nixon was a pretty big environmentalist for his time. So there’s that.

7. Calvin Coolidge

Whether or not you like Calvin Coolidge depends a lot on how you feel about his small government policies, but in general, we can say one thing about him: he didn’t ruin the country.

This might seem like a small accomplishment, but when your job involves presiding over one of the most powerful nations on the planet, simply doing your job effectively, making people believe in their government, and leaving office as a popular person can be something worth bragging about. And with an alliterative name like that, he’s definitely the president who sounds most like a superhero.

8. Harry Truman

Harry Truman’s presidency was never going to avoid controversy, simply by virtue of the state of the country (and the world, for that matter) when he took office. These days, most look back on him as a strong leader who got the job done, though.

But this wasn’t always the case. Most of the men on this list are here because we either hate them or ignore them. Truman makes the cut because, in the years following his time in office, the general consensus was not favorable. In hindsight, though, we’ve seen that he deserves more credit than he got during his own time. History changes views. Speaking of which...

9. Barack Obama

Our current president makes this list because we’ve got the sneaking suspicion that the history books will be more friendly towards him than we’ve been as a nation. When you’re president at a time like this, you’re not gonna please everyone. Barack Obama definitely isn’t, and yes, there’s a good reason that we’re having a healthy debate about him. Or an unhealthy one, depending on where you get your news.

That said, love him or hate him, President Obama has made some major achievements while in office. You may not support universal healthcare, but the fact that he was able to put it in place just years after people believed we’d never come close to adopting such a policy is reason to be impressed.

On top of that, gay marriage is now legal in every state, and while it wasn’t his decision, the influence of his administration definitely helped move that issue forward. The fact is, despite facing roadblocks every step of the way, Obama has continued to push forward on the types of issues that matter to the people who voted for him. Historically, that tends to count for something.

He was also pretty funny on Between Two Ferns.

Joe Oliveto wants to hear why you disagree with his article on Twitter.

Want more of the Culture you actually care about delivered straight to your inbox? Click here to sign up for our daily email.