17 Historical Figures that Everyone Admires But Shouldn’t

Throughout history, numerous individuals have been elevated to the status of icons, celebrated for their contributions to society, politics, science, and culture. These figures are often admired for their groundbreaking achievements, leadership qualities, and revolutionary ideas. However, a closer examination of their lives and actions reveals a more complex and sometimes darker picture than the one commonly portrayed in textbooks and popular media. 

Christopher Columbus

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Celebrated for “discovering” America, Christopher Columbus’s voyages led to the brutal exploitation and decimation of native populations. Columbus also initiated the transatlantic slave trade, violently subjugated native peoples, and set the stage for European colonization of the Americas. “Since the 1990s, a growing number of states have begun to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day – a holiday meant to honor the culture and history of the people living in the Americas both before and after Columbus’ arrival,” according to U.S. News.

Winston Churchill

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Former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Winston Churchill is revered as a great wartime leader. Still, his policies and decisions contributed to the 1943 Bengal famine, where millions of Indians died of starvation. Churchill’s dismissive attitude towards the suffering of colonized peoples in India and his advocacy for the use of chemical weapons in warfare are often overlooked.

Andrew Jackson

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The seventh president of the United States signed the Indian Removal Act, which led to the Trail of Tears, a forced relocation that caused the deaths of thousands of Native Americans. The harsh treatment of Native Americans should put a dark spot on Andrew Jackson’s presidency, which is more often remembered for his populist approach during his term. 

Woodrow Wilson

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Wilson was an “American scholar and statesman best remembered for his legislative accomplishments and his high-minded idealism,” says Britannica. He led the nation through World War I as the 28th president of the United States and advocated for the League of Nations. However, he also supported segregationist policies and praised the Ku Klux Klan, casting a shadow over his contributions to international diplomacy.

Mahatma Gandhi

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Mahatma Gandhi was inconsistent with his public persona as a leader in Indian independence and nonviolent philosophy, his views on race, and particularly his writings during his time in South Africa. His treatment of women within his own close circle has also been brought to light and criticized for being problematic.

Mother Teresa

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Many believe Mother Teresa deserves sainthood, while a New York Times writer argues, “Her Missionary of Charity was (and still is) one of the richest organizations in the world.” At the same time, her clinics were not clean or safe. Mother Teresa is known for her charitable work and dedication to the poor in Kolkata, India. However, critics argue that her approach often glorified suffering as a way to be closer to God instead of mitigating it.

John F. Kennedy

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His term in office barely went past 1,000 days before he was assassinated; however, John F. Kennedy is often idolized as a charismatic leader and visionary. However, looking back, his administration was involved in numerous controversial actions, including the Bay of Pigs invasion and the escalation of the Vietnam War. His personal life was also the source of drama, with multiple extramarital affairs.

Che Guevara

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“In today’s imagination Ché remains a mythical, romantic hero — an uncompromising revolutionary, selfless, dedicated, incorruptible, ready to die for his beliefs,” PBS writes. Che Guevara is often seen as a symbol of rebellion and anti-imperialism. However, during his time in power in Cuba, he was responsible for overseeing the execution of hundreds of people without trial.

Pablo Picasso

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Possibly one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, Pablo Picasso was also known for his tumultuous relationships with women. Several of his romantic relationships involved significant age differences and allegations of abuse, making his legacy complicated for people with any feminist leanings.

Henry Ford

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While Henry Ford may have revolutionized the automobile industry with his assembly line method, he was also known for his anti-Semitic views. In late 1922, the New York Times reported the “rumor” that Henry Ford was bankrolling Adolf Hitler and his well-funded Nazi movement. His publication, The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem, inspired Hitler, which tainted Ford’s reputation as an innovative industrialist.

Roald Dahl

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Author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, and other beloved children’s books, Roald Dahl also had a darker side, including making anti-Semitic remarks and being difficult to work with. The BBC points out, “Take a closer look at Dahl’s writing for children, and you’ll find something to offend almost everyone. If he was a bigot, he was an equal-opportunities bigot.”

Coco Chanel

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We think of her as the glamor girl because Coco Chanel, the founder of the Chanel brand, revolutionized women’s fashion. However, during World War II, she was a collaborator with the Nazis, which included having a relationship with a German officer and involvement in Nazi intelligence activities.

Thomas Jefferson

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While Thomas Jefferson was a founding father and the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, he also owned hundreds of slaves. One of his slaves was Sally Hemings, whom he had six children with and most likely began a sexual relationship with when she was 14, according to The Smithsonian. Though the two were said to have been together for almost four decades, it still raises the question of consent.

Charles Lindbergh

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Charles Lindbergh was an American aviator hero who gained global fame as the first person to fly alone across the Atlantic. In 1938, Lindbergh received the Service Cross of the German Eagle for his services to world aviation by Göring. Many Americans saw Lindbergh’s acceptance of the “Nazi medal” as a sign of Lindbergh’s sympathies with the Third Reich, even though other Americans such as Henry Ford had previously received the medal as well.

J. Edgar Hoover

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The first director of the FBI is known for founding and shaping it into a more efficient organization. However, he also used illegal methods to spy on political activists and used his power to threaten and manipulate political figures.

Steve Jobs

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For all those who love the iPhone and everything that comes with it, Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Inc., was a visionary in technology and design. However, he was also known for his aggressive management style and poor treatment of employees. His personal relationships and behavior toward his daughter and her mother also paint him in a darker light.

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