10 American Politicians You've Never Heard of Who Basically Changed History

A list of the most influential politicians is bound to have plenty of names we all know. John F. Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt, Hillary Clinton. The usual suspects. Notable losers like Barry Goldwater and William Jennings Bryan have also gone down in history for their impact on society. In the convoluted tapestry of the American past, though, there are countless politicians most of us never learned about in school, who never show up in History Channel documentaries. Some of these men and women had a profound impact on American history, impact that is in some cases still felt today.

Here, then, are a few generally unknown politicians, whose stories shouldn't be lost to the foggy ruins of time. Some of them ran for president, others for local office. Some won, most lost. Some never ran for at all, yet still managed to make a mark, though political action like petitioning. Regardless of races run and offices held, each of these people made a positive difference. 

  • William King, Who Made Two New States
    Photo: Philip Spooner Harris / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Even some of you Northeasterners may not know Maine wasn't always its own state. Until 1820, it was part of Massachusetts. William King was a leading proponent of statehood for Maine, and became its first governor, though left the office just over a year after being elected, to take a job in the federal government.

    This may not seem like a much, but remember that, before the Civil War, adding states was a very big deal. The country needed to balance the number of free states and slave states, and adding Maine as a free state changed that balance, necessitating the Missouri compromise, which added Missouri as a slave state.

    Plus, where would all the Stephen King novels take place if Maine weren't a state? Northern Massachusetts? 

  • Shirley Chisholm, The First Black Congresswoman

    Shirley Chisholm, The First Black Congresswoman
    Photo: Thomas J. O'Halloran, U.S. News & World Reports. Light restoration by Adam Cuerden / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Shirley Chisholm became the first African American to run for President of the United States in a major party when, in 1972, she ran in the Democratic primary. Four years before that, she became America's first Black congresswoman, a position in which she served seven terms. She made a name for herself straight away, as a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, and for demanding reassignment after placed on the House Forestry Committee. 

    Chisholm was also one of the major forces for the Equal Right's Amendment. Though the ERA didn't pass, it was one of the biggest causes for second wave radical feminists of the 1970s. Many causes feminists are fighting for today were first fought for by Chisholm.

  • Andrew Haswell Green, The Father Of New York City

    Andrew Haswell Green, The Father Of New York City
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    The iconic five boroughs of New York City weren't always the single entity we know them as today. Before 1898, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island weren't part of the big Apple. Andrew Haswell Green, who was instrumental in the building of Central Park, helped push for the creation of the Imperial City, creating the modern metropolis. He also had a hand in creating the Bronx Zoo, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Washington Bridge, and the New York City Public Library. If you're ever in NYC, chances are you're seeing something Green shepherded into existence.

  • Eugene V. Debs, Who Got Nearly 1 Million Votes For President While In Prison

    Eugene V. Debs, Who Got Nearly 1 Million Votes For President While In Prison
    Photo: Underwood & Underwood / Wikimedia Commons / No Known Copyright Restrictions

    Contrary to what you may think, Bernie Sanders isn't the first politician to bring socialism to the masses in the United States. In the early 20th century, Eugene V. Debs was a fiery socialist who ran for president — from his prison cell.

    Debs ran for president five times as a socialist, receiving around 900,000 votes in 1912, or 6% of the total vote. His most notable election, though, probably came in 1920. He had been imprisoned for his opposition to the United States entering the First World War. Still, he was on the ballot for the Socialist Party and got almost a million votes.

    Debs is a historically important figure for his role in promoting radical workers's movements of the first half of the 20th century. Though largely forgotten today, these movements were critical in the fight for employment rights many take for granted, like weekends and the eight-hour day. He also fought against corporate consolidation (aka monopolies) and refused to abandon the socialist cause after many American politicians dropped it like a hot potato in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution. 

  • Robert Smalls, Born A Slave And Elected To Congress By A Southern State

    Robert Smalls, Born A Slave And Elected To Congress By A Southern State
    Photo: Mathew Brady, Levin Corbin Handy, Restored by Adam Cuerden / Wikimedia Commons / No Known Copyright Restrictions

    In the aftermath of the Civil War, politics in the South were a complete mess; newly enfranchised slaves found themselves with voting power, and powerful politicians who rose to prominence before the war were struggling with the new order.

    In this milieu, Robert Smalls, a former slave, was elected to serve in both houses of the South Carolina state legislature, and spent five terms in the US House of Representatives. He helped fight for rights for Blacks in the state, which were rolled back after Reconstruction, as the Jim Crow period started.

    Perhaps even more amazing is how Smalls got his freedom. Before the end of the Civil War, while he was working as a slave aboard a Confederate war ship, he and his fellow slaves commandeered the boat, sailed it to the sea, and surrendered to the Union Navy.

    Of the fate of African Americans in the United States, Smalls once famously said: “My race needs no special defense for the past history of them and this country. It proves them to be equal of any people anywhere. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life.”

  • Frances Willard, The Mother Of Prohibition
    Photo: Unknown photographer; restored by Adam Cuerden / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    In the 1880s, Frances Willard transformed the Women's Christian Temperance Union from a conservative religious organization to an international powerhouse that advocated for women's rights. She, and her organization, were instrumental in pushing for women's suffrage and, more broadly, for women to expand their horizons beyond domestic roles and actively engage in political and social issues. 

    Yet none of that is why Willard makes this list. In 1884, she authored the Polyglot Petition, advocating for the prohibition of alcohol, opium, and other addictive substances. Willard's tireless efforts to promote Prohibition resulted in 7.5 million people signing the petition, which was publicly unveiled in 1891. She passed away in 1898, but her efforts eventually led to the US Senate proposing the Eighteenth Amendment, in 1917. It was adopted in 1919, and was in effect from 1920 until 1933.