Who Are the Four Presidents Depicted on Mount Rushmore?

Two slaveholders, the inspiration behind the teddy bear, and a 6.4” Kentuckian born in a log cabin. Who are the four presidents depicted on Mount Rushmore?

Apr 21, 2024By Scott Mclaughlan, PhD Sociology

the four presidents on mount rushmore


Mount Rushmore, a giant sculpture of four American presidents, from left to right features George Washington, the first President of the United States and the first President to be carved onto Mount Rushmore. After Washington comes Thomas Jefferson, who drafted the Declaration of Independence and spearheaded the Louisiana Purchase (1803). Next in line is Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, champion of the Square Deal, and finally, Abraham Lincoln, whose leadership during the Civil War held America together, and led toward the abolition of slavery.

George Washington

george washington president
George Washington’s presidential portrait. Source: The White House, Washington DC


George Washington (1732-1799) was a colonial military leader, American revolutionary and founding father. He held two of the most important positions in the history of early America: General of the Continental Army (1775-1783) and 1st President of the United States (1789-1797). 


Born in Westmoreland County, Virginia, Washington hailed from a prominent planter family. He worked as a land surveyor and mapmaker before transitioning to a military career in the colonial Virginia Militia. He became a colonel and played a key role in the French and Indian War (1754-1763). In 1775, like many of his contemporaries, he took up arms against Britain, as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. 


Controversially, Washington made his fortune through ownership of the family slave plantation in Mount Vernon, Virginia. By his death aged 67, he owned more than 300 slaves. As President, he ratified the US Constitution, fostered the development of a strong Federal government, and established the president of a two-term presidential limit. 


Thomas Jefferson

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Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) was raised as a colonial Englishman in Shadwell, Virginia. Much like George Washington, he was born into the slave-holding planter class of colonial Virginia. In his youth, he excelled in mathematics, philosophy, and law, eventually gaining admission to the Virginia bar in 1767. 


Following the War of Independence, he held various significant positions: ambassador to France, then first Secretary of State, and ultimately, ascending to the Presidency of the United States. By all accounts, Jefferson was a bonafide polymath: lawyer, philosopher, architect, statesman. He believed that Francis Bacon, John Locke, and Isaac Newton were the three greatest men to have ever lived. 


The 3rd President of the United States typically enjoys a fine reputation with the general public. Yet the great contradiction of his life and career is that he both drafted the Declaration of Independence – with its famous maxim that “all men are equal” – and owned 607 enslaved men, women, and children throughout his lifetime. 


Theodore Roosevelt

theodore roosevelt standing portrait
Standing portrait of President Theodore Roosevelt in his office by Levin C. Handy. Source: Library of Congress, Washington DC


Born into privilege in New York City, Theodore Roosevelt Jr. (1858-1919) was homeschooled and excelled in a wide range of subjects, before continuing his studies at Harvard and later, at Columbia Law School. 


He first came to national prominence as Assistant Secretary to the Navy in 1897; then Governor of New York (1899); and eventually, Vice President of the United States in 1901. Following the assassination of President McKinley Roosevelt became President. 


His Presidency (1901-1909) was vigorous. His “Square Deal” ushed in legislative measures aimed at consumer protection and conservation, he established America’s great national parks, fostered the construction of the Panama Canal, expanded the power of the US Navy, and brokered the end of the Russo-Japanese War.  


However, Roosevelt’s most enduring legacy unfolded in 1902 during a hunting trip in Mississippi. His refusal to shoot a tethered bear immortalized in a Washington Post cartoon of “Teddy” and “his bear”, led to the creation of the world-famous cuddly toy. 


Abraham Lincoln

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Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) stands out as one of America’s most revered presidents. Yet also one of the most decisive. For some Lincoln was a a pragmatic politician, moralist, and liberator of slaves, for others, the 16th President of the United States was an indecisive leader and anti-constitutional tyrant. 


Lincoln was born into poverty in Kentucky and raised on the US frontier, for the most part in Indiana. He entered politics via the Illinois House of Representatives in 1834. After being admitted to the Illinois Bar in 1836, he was elected to the US House of Representatives in 1846 and became leader of the Republican Party in 1856. 


In 1861, he was elected President of the United States. Two pivotal facts define Lincoln’s legacy: he presided over a cataclysmic civil war and the emancipation of four million slaves. His tenure was tragically cut short when he became the first US President to be assassinated in 1865 – by a Confederate sympathizer.

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By Scott MclaughlanPhD SociologyScott is an independent scholar with a doctorate in sociology from Birkbeck College, University of London.