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The Modest Accomplishments of 5 Forgotten Presidents

The Modest Accomplishments of 5 Forgotten Presidents

While everyone is quick to commemorate George Washington and Abraham Lincoln on Presidents’ Day each year, what about the other 42 U.S. Presidents who get less love? More specifically, what about some of the Presidents who contemporary Americans have more or less forgotten about altogether?

Here is a list of five Presidents that rarely receive more than a mention in history textbooks. Their terms may not be highly regarded overall and their lists of accomplishments may be pretty short, but all of them have done something noteworthy to leave a significant mark on the United States.

1. Warren G. Harding

The 29th President often ranks last in historian polls thanks to a variety of scandals including the Teapot Dome — plus it doesn’t help that he died just two years into his term.

Still, Harding wasn’t entirely bad. Following World War I, soldiers came home to discover a lack of jobs; by the time Harding was elected, the unemployment rate neared 12%. In order to slash joblessness, Harding instituted a stimulus plan that managed to help drop the rate to just 2.4% by the time he passed away.


2. James K. Polk

It’s not often that a U.S. President sticks to his campaign promises, but Polk is one of the few who can honestly say he fulfilled his four pre-election pledges.

His first promise was to end the conflict with England over Oregon Territory. By bluffing that he was willing to go to war for the disputed land, Polk got Great Britain to compromise and split the area peacefully. His second promise was to lower the exorbitant tariffs, which he accomplished by setting a standardized tax rate. For his third promise, Polk avoided the conflict of a national bank by creating an independent treasury. Lastly, Polk successfully gained California from Mexico for the price of $15 million… although U.S. military intimidation basically forced Mexico into selling the land.


3. Calvin Coolidge

Though his economic policies were popular with Americans during the 1920s, Coolidge’s actions were later blamed in part for the Great Depression, thereby tarnishing his legacy.

In better news, in 1924, Coolidge signed the Indian Citizen Act into law. Because of this legislation, Native Americans born in the United States were automatically granted citizenship. Prior to this Act, Native Americans were in a strange legal limbo that left them impoverished and without rights. Though the law was, in part, an attempt to assimilate tribes into white culture, it also protected tribal sovereignty so that Indian culture could be maintained on protected land.


4. Benjamin Harrison

Like Coolidge, Harrison’s financial and corporate regulations have been blamed for setting the Great Depression into motion even though Harrison’s term was from 1889-1893.

Even if his economic policies were to fault, his early civil rights advocacy was remarkable given how many leaders tried to avoid this divisive issue. Though the 15th Amendment had recently given African Americans the right to vote, Southern states had their own tactics for disenfranchising black men. To counter these shady maneuvers, Harrison promoted bills aimed to protect the black vote. He also named famed black activist Frederick Douglass as the ambassador to Haiti.


5. James Garfield

It’s sort of pitiful that a comic strip cat is more commonly associated with the name Garfield than a U.S. President, but James never got to prove his merit when he was assassinated just six months after taking office.

Though his legacy is understandably small, the major issue of the day does indicate that he had strong principles. When a post office scandal seemed to implicate members of his own party as law-breakers, Garfield nonetheless encouraged investigators to pursue justice. As a result, his non-partisan commitment to ethics helped to inspire civil service reform.

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Photo Credit: Jim Bowen

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10:29PM PST on Feb 19, 2014

Nice reminder that government can and often does have to step in to help the people of this country. Thanks.

9:01AM PST on Feb 19, 2014


12:11AM PST on Feb 19, 2014

Thank you for the info!

8:50PM PST on Feb 18, 2014

Taft was fun too.

7:55PM PST on Feb 18, 2014

BO keeps comparing himself to Lincoln, there's an empty space on the mountain next to Lincoln, wonder if that will be BO’s next executive order?

5:37PM PST on Feb 18, 2014

@Philip B "I don't know all that much about some of the candidates but feel no one could be as bad as Nixon. Although he was running for president in 68, I read information on the BBC website a while ago and recently that he interfered in possible Vietnam peace talks in Paris."

Yes, Henry Kissinger scuttled the talks on Nixon's behalf, just as he'd earlier gone to Vietnam at Rockefeller's request and determined the war was unwinnable, which didn't stop him from advocating that it be continued for an indefinite period of time. Similarly, Bush, Sr. met secretly with an Iranian delegation in Paris in 1980, after being flown there by a member of the Bin Laden family, and negotiated with the Iranians to hold the hostages until after the election. Being that at these times both NIxon and Bush were private citizens, without the authority to represent the US, this is what is known in the vernacular as treason, or would be if certain classes of people weren't considered to be above the law.

5:17PM PST on Feb 18, 2014

Thanks Steven G. for the quotes and isn't it interesting how long ago the takeover of the US was instituted? Here we are blaming the current politicians and they've ALL been in the hands of the 'big players' for decades, as have any other country with resources to exploit. What a ripe plum the US was!!

2:36PM PST on Feb 18, 2014

I don't know all that much about some of the candidates but feel no one could be as bad as Nixon. Although he was running for president in 68, I read information on the BBC website a while ago and recently that he interfered in possible Vietnam peace talks in Paris. This resulted in the war continuing for a number of years and probably doomed Johnson's legacy. Surely none of the others did anything as low but others might know otherwise. Maybe as all of this was done before he was elected, exempts him from the list but he wasn't a great president I believe. Ending the war may have happened in 68 and Nixon wouldn't have been responsible for any of it diluting his achievements even more

5:26AM PST on Feb 18, 2014

Thank you Kevin, for Sharing this!

12:03AM PST on Feb 18, 2014

Right wingers seem to like Millard Fillmore for some inexplicable reason. He was never elected to the presidency, and about the best thing which can be said about him is that he was not Zachary Taylor, upon whose death he took office. Fillmore's idea of compromise was to sign and enforce the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

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