The number of forgotten presidents even among those people who consistently read history are legion. What is strangely forgotten is how effective some of these forgotten presidents had been. Perhaps they hadn’t always been effective or noteworthy in their own time, but looking back, especially when it has been decades or centuries, we can observe exactly how impactful some of these former leaders had been.

Due to the limited number of candidates and those who were actually impactful, I have culled these numbers from a top ten to a more natural top five.

Calvin Coolidge seated at desk in Oval Office.

5 Calvin Coolidge

The 1920s seem to be a decade where presidents went to be forgotten. Harding and Coolidge are the forgotten pair while Hoover receives much of the blame for either the corruption or inaction of the previous two. The Depression, which soon became the Great Depression due to 1920s apathy and FDR’s overbearing and crushing policies, was catastrophic. Coolidge’s influence comes largely from his apathy which created some of the initial problems of the stock market crash in 1929. Much of his apathy, as noted in an earlier article, came when his son died due to an infection he received while playing tennis around the White House, of which Coolidge blamed himself. Once a proclaimed Progressive in earlier elected offices, Coolidge withdrew, becoming a political shadow of himself.

William McKinley. , 1891. [New York, Boston] Photograph.

4 William McKinley

McKinley’s presidency rose toward the end of the 1800s and burgeoning 1900s. The Age of Imperialism had already swept throughout Europe, much of Asia had been claimed and the Scramble for Africa had largely concluded. While America had made some Imperialistic inroads across North America and Hawaii, this expansion was solidified with McKinley’s Spanish-American War which absorbed Guam, the Philippines and Porto Rico into the American Empire and freeing, if in name only, Cuba. While there are many to blame such as the world trajectory, Theodore Roosevelt, Alfred Thayer Mahan’s naval philosophy, yellow journalism, among many others, it was under McKinley’s watch where American Imperialism shot off and never looked back.

James K. Polk, half-length portrait, seated, facing right.

3 James K. Polk

How a state or a capital isn’t named after Polk is a minor miracle. While he was a President from the South during the Antebellum period, he incredibly expanded the borders of the United States. While most of the work for the integration of Texas was committed to under President Tyler, it was President Polk’s reign which saw Texas into the Union. There were also a number of issues on the northern border with the British which Polk settled, ultimately deciding the American-Canadian border on the 49th parallel. The most important mark was that he was the one who initiated the Mexican-American War which resulted in much of the southwestern borders we see today and settled the Texas-Mexican border in finality. The acquisition of more future southern states also set the United States on a path which would hurry the pace of a future Civil War.

James Monroe, three-quarter length portrait, seated, facing slightly left.

2 James Monroe

Monroe ushered in a moment of peace for the United States. His largest contribution, aside from the peace with the European powers, was bringing in the Monroe Doctrine (a document not named after him for decades after it was enacted) which stipulated that powers from the Eastern Hemisphere (essentially Europe) ought not to exert their influence upon the Western Hemisphere. However, there were moments when the Doctrine was ignored, such as when France invaded Mexico while the United States was distracted with its own internal issues in the mid 1800s. And there were other moments where the Doctrine was politely ignored when the British went to defend the Falkland Islands against Argentina’s invasion. The policy was a major player and excuse for future expansion of US power in the 1900s and played an important part during the Cold War.

William Howard Taft, Head-and-Shoulders Portrait, Facing Front. Library of Congress, Accessed 10 Aug. 2022.

1 William Howard Taft

William Howard Taft was a man sent off to the Philippines to create a future civilian government, he was considered for the Supreme Court more than once and he even met to deal with the Pope on behalf of the US government. These things were all accomplished before he was ever president. Taft was a forgotten man, though. Sandwiched between the boisterous and braggart Theodore Roosevelt and the destructiveness and world changing events of World War I, it is easy to see how almost anyone could be forgotten. So are two of his accomplishments which linger today. While Roosevelt bragged about his ability to enforce anti-trust and break up companies, he did this somewhat selectively. Taft, in almost half the time, nearly doubled Roosevelt’s efforts to break up companies; this effort caused the Roosevelt-Taft friendship to permanently fracture which incited Roosevelt to run against him, causing Taft to lose his reelection bid and may have rewritten events leading up to World War I. Secondly, while he wasn’t the one who finally pushed through the modern tax system, he pushed hard for it for many years. A modern Progressive at the time, he aided the establishment of the Income Tax which many Americans suffer under around the world even if they live in another country and do not or cannot use the services the United States government offers.

Special Mention:

Gerald Ford

To mention a more modern forgotten Presidential figure and one who was important, we ought not to entirely forget Gerald Ford. While he was an appointed president through Nixon he was able to do one very important thing. Pardoning Richard Nixon, while controversial at the time, it allowed the nation to heal after the Vietnam War. And while other Presidents have since committed more audacious schemes, the media actually cared about what Nixon did and rightfully turned the people against him for that act. By putting Nixon aside and destroying Ford’s political future, the country could not only forget about Watergate, but it could also pretend to forget about Vietnam. Without taking this act, the country would’ve been focused on Nixon trial and its outcome through the 1970s, the 1980s and potentially beyond. With such headlines in the news, it is impossible to know how it may have affected future presidents, world media or even world events.


Calvin Coolidge, half-length portrait, seated at desk in Oval Office, facing front. 15 August 1923. Photograph.

Header. Picture copyright by Dustin Joiner 2023.

James K. Polk, half-length portrait, seated, facing right. , None. [Between 1855 and 1865, printed later] Photograph.

James Monroe, three-quarter length portrait, seated, facing slightly left. None. [Between 1900 and 1920] Photograph.

William Howard Taft, Head-and-Shoulders Portrait, Facing Front. Library of Congress, Accessed 10 Aug. 2022.

William McKinley. , 1891. [New York, Boston] Photograph.