Who Is the Most Influential Politician in History?

A big question

Graham Roumieu

Hasan Minhaj, correspondent, The Daily Show

Alexander Hamilton. A bastard, orphan immigrant who came to America to leave his mark on our nation’s history speaks to me and to so many other immigrant children. His impact on politics and our financial institutions is second to none.

Bellamy Young, actor, Scandal (Senator Mellie Grant)

Though many sinister souls have had enormous influence, I would rather focus on someone influential in building the world I want to live in. I've always revered Gandhi’s guiding principle: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.” Of course, that’s my head talking; my heart is singing “Alexander Hamilton!

Joshua Malina, co-host, The West Wing Weekly

Augustus? Peacemaker. Indira Gandhi? Game-changer. Abraham Lincoln? LOVE the hat! But only one politician was chief aide to Washington, founded a political party, became our first secretary of the Treasury, and more than 200 years later has us grooving to his rap-inflected story: Alexander Hamilton!

Graham Roumieu

Andrew Scott Cooper, author, The Oil Kings

After seizing power in 550 B.C., Cyrus the Great established the Persian empire, which became the world’s first superpower, and his landmark declaration of support for human rights resonates today. Cyrus was great, but he was also good.

Rick Beyer, author, Rivals Unto Death (February 2017)

In a desperate hour, John Adams prodded reluctant delegates at the Continental Congress to declare American independence. Jefferson gets points for prose and Hancock for handwriting, but neither would have had the chance if America’s grouchiest Founding Father hadn’t pushed the Declaration through.

Jane Hampton Cook, author, The Burning of the White House

Scholarly and sly, James Madison spearheaded the creation of the U.S. Constitution; built a political party with Thomas Jefferson; and as the fourth president helped propel the next three presidents by promoting James Monroe to a Cabinet position, John Quincy Adams to a pivotal peace-commissioner role, and Andrew Jackson to a major general.

Jon Meacham, author, Destiny and Power

Pontius Pilate. As the Roman governor of Judea around A.D. 33, he was brutal and unforgiving. Wary of unrest, Pilate convicted Jesus and condemned him to death—the crucial event, followed by his disciples’ belief in his resurrection, in Christian history, which has shaped so much since.

Mark D. Steinberg, history professor, University of Illinois

Lenin. Marx welcomed the “specter of communism” that was “haunting Europe,” but it became solid and moved from the streets into the halls of power—and not only in Europe—when a savvy, opportunistic, and charismatic political leader entered the picture and rewrote the rules.

Graham Roumieu

Tony Goldwyn, actor, Scandal (President Fitzgerald Grant)

Despite a lifetime of oppression at the hands of a racist government, including 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela transformed South Africa through his faith in the brotherhood of man. His Truth and Reconciliation Commission stands as a shining example of the power of forgiveness.

Andrew Roberts, author, Masters and Commanders

Winston Churchill, because he persuaded the British people to fight on against Nazi Germany before America came into the war. Denying Hitler victory meant that the U.S. could use Britain as an unsinkable aircraft carrier from 1942 to 1945.

David Pietrusza, historian

Pontius Pilate, who facilitated the most consequential event in human history. Politicians ever since have similarly condemned the innocent, passed the buck, and washed their hands of the consequences of their actions. But, then again, so have we.

Reader Responses

Andrew Gombos, Houston, Texas

Julius Caesar. He crafted the transition from republic to triumvirate to empire and left a legacy of leadership that was emulated for 2,000 years, and continues today.

Cori Schlegel, Stoughton, Wis.

If you had asked “Who is the greatest politician in history?,” I might have reasoned Abraham Lincoln, or Theodore or Franklin Roosevelt. But for the question that you actually asked, I can’t see how the answer could be anyone other than Adolf Hitler.

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