It’s probably a sign of the times that we live in that when you begin to Google “worst US,” “presidents” is the word the online search engine suggests to complete your query. So many people flailing around for answers. Sometimes, when you’re looking to make sense of the present, though, it helps to take a look into the past.
You can measure bad presidencies by a number of different parameters. You can use presidential popularity polls that track preferences in the modern era. You can go by the experts who regularly compile best to worst presidents lists. Other criteria may include economic performance indicators like federal debt and unemployment rates.
But some elements of a presidency are less quantifiable per se. When it comes to earlier presidents of the 19th century, in particular, the crucibles of slavery and the treatment of the Native American population tended to bring out the bad. Choosing between money, expediency and, say, the lives of human beings does present irrefutable evidence of a kind of darkness of the soul that makes mere douchebaggery or economic mismanagement seem excusable.
So come with us on a journey of discovery as we look beyond 44 and 45 for the worst presidents ever, only to find so much that looks familiar over the centuries.
15. Woodrow Wilson (1913 to 1921) — KKK Fan
Woodrow Wilson became president decades after the Civil War, but that didn’t stop him from using his position to try and undo any gains that African Americans had made since that time. His father, a clergyman, had been a slave owner and had defended slavery from the pulpit. Before becoming POTUS, he was president of Princeton University in 1902 and did what he could to stop African Americans from applying. In 1901, he wrote a book called History of the American People, in which he wrote a justification of the KKK. As president, he instituted workplace segregation in the government and supported it in the army during WWI. He told protesters, “Segregation is not a humiliation but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen.” He was known to show the openly racist film The Birth of a Nation — which glorified the KKK — in the White House. The film, in fact, contains a quote of his, “The white men were roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation, until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the south, to protect the southern country.” Woodrow also hated first-generation immigrants along with free speech. He passed the Sedition Act of 1918, which made criticism of the government illegal, and he ordered the infamous Palmer Raids, a series of raids by the DOJ attempting to illegally deport up to 10,000 radical leftists.
14. Richard Nixon (1969 to 1974) — Tricky Dicky
It took only five short years in the position for #37, Tricky Dicky, to make most lists of America’s worst ever presidents. Despite everything we might construe of his presidency as positive, including opening up relations with China, creating the EPA, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission, Nixon’s name is inextricably linked with just one event, the one that ended his term: Watergate. Just what was Watergate, you ask? Named after the Watergate Hotel in Washington, the word has actually come to refer to a series of scandals that hit Nixon and his team. In 1972, members of Nixon’s re-election team broke into the hotel, then the site of the DRC’s convention. They were arrested, and the ensuing scandal began to engulf his closest advisers, including aides G. Gordon Liddy and James W. McCord Jr., who were convicted of conspiracy, burglary, and wiretapping. Nixon tried to stonewall attempts to get information and obstructed the investigation at every turn, but it didn’t work. By August 1974, he was forced to resign, linking his name forever to political corruption. Nixon was formally pardoned by #38 – President Gerald Ford. When the full White House tapes from Nixon’s presidency were released in 2013, another charming feature of the man emerged — his blatant anti-Semitism. He’s heard to complain about “the Jews” many times.
13. George W. Bush (2001 to 2009) — Dubya And His Expensive Wars
Dubya‘s presidency began with a controversy over electoral votes in Florida — under his brother’s Governorship — in a disputed victory over former Vice President Al Gore. It appeared he had won by a slim majority, but then the infamous “hanging chad” scandal came to light. Essentially, many jurisdictions in the state still used cardboard punch cards to vote, and when the punched holes, or chads, weren’t completely removed, it turns out the machines didn’t count the vote. The Supreme Court intervened by halting the recount and granting Bush the presidency. As a result, he was the President on duty during the attacks of September 11, 2001, a national tragedy that also sparked another round of controversy as Bush dragged the country into war in Afghanistan and then Iraq. Along with an astronomical price tag estimated at about $5 trillion, the Iraq war was entered into based on flimsy evidence of the existence of weapons of mass destruction and provoked accusations that he was simply finishing the Gulf War that his father had started as president. Bush also faced criticism for his mishandling of Hurricane Katrina as well as the financial crisis of 2008. On a lighter note, he became known for his so-called Bushisms, or misuse of the English language, like his assertion that his detractors misunderestimated him. Lately, he seems to be trying to gain a little traction in the public opinion polls with a campaign consisting of videos of him painting and critiques of 45.
12. Herbert Hoover (1929 to 1933) — A Hated Presidency
Number 31 was elected just before the Great Depression began, plunging the US and world economies into years of turmoil, and millions of Americans into years of poverty and uncertainty. Hoover was a fiscal conservative and resisted the idea of direct relief to the hordes of out-of-work citizens. Instead, he began massive public works projects like the Hoover Dam that bore his name. It wasn’t an entirely bad idea — but it was his refusal to use government funds to directly benefit the unemployed and his way of conveying his plans that made many Americans hate him. Unemployment rates were at 25 percent and 5,000 banks went under. To make matters worse, there was a drought that destroyed much of the American heartland. As the homeless began to build large makeshift towns on the outskirts of many cities, they called them Hoovervilles in a kind of bitter mockery of the man who wouldn’t help them. “Prosperity cannot be restored by raids upon the public Treasury,” he claimed. On the side of political policy, he actually made the Depression worse by sparking an international trade war with tariffs. To top it all off, he was a big supporter of Prohibition, the law that made drinking alcohol illegal in many jurisdictions.
11. Franklin Pierce (1853 to 1857) — A Servile Tool
Teddy Roosevelt, president #26, was no fan of his predecessor #14, calling him “a servile tool of men worse than himself … ever ready to do any work the slavery leaders set him.” That pretty much sums up the gist of Pierce’s presidency. Pierce — who was called “doughface” by his political foes of the day — believed strongly in expanding the territory of the United States, and whether or not that involved slavery was pretty much moot to his point of view. He supported the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which replaced the Missouri Compromise of 1820, a law that prohibited slavery north of latitude 36°30´. The new Act let the people living in the then territories of Kansas and Nebraska decide whether or not to have slaves. Among his other stellar accomplishments were a proposal to take Cuba by force, and the official recognition of a new regime in Nicaragua. The Central American country had been taken over by a pro-slavery American by the name of William Walker, who’d installed himself as president. Pierce was also a noted drunk, and after he was done with the presidency, he supposedly said, “There is nothing left… but to get drunk.”
10. Andrew Jackson (1829 to 1837) — The Indian Killer
Andrew Jackson was a hero of the War of 1812 and seen as a champion of the common man — the common white man, that is. Just after he took office, he fired 919 government officials and installed his supporters, saying, “To the victor belong the spoils.” Sounds familiar… When it came to Native Americans, his hatred knew no bounds; he was known as “Indian Killer.” He was a strong supporter of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which allowed any state to remove Native Americans from their lands at will. He got his start participating in brutal military raids against the Creek and Cherokee Native American peoples under President Jefferson and ordered to murder women and children to clear the way for extensive plantations in Alabama and Georgia. When gold was discovered on Cherokee land in Georgia, he dismissed existing treaties and had one of his own agents do the so-called negotiating on the natives’ behalf. It resulted in the Treaty of Echota that forced their migration to the West. Jackson was also the biggest slave owner in the southwestern United States.
9. Martin Van Buren (1837 to 1841) — The Trail Of Tears
Martin Van Buren, it has to be said, inherited a $hit storm from predecessor Andrew Jackson, whom he had served under as Vice President. But, it also has to be said, a great man would have proved his mettle. For Van Buren, it meant simply sliming along with what had already been set in motion. Van Buren continued the anti-Native American policies of Jackson, including going to war against the Seminole in Florida, who objected to the idea of forced migration to the west. In 1838, he declared, “It affords sincere pleasure to apprise the Congress of the entire removal of the Cherokee nation of Indians to their new homes.” He oversaw the enforcement of the Treaty of New Echota. The enforced deportation of Native Americans from the east coast to lands west of the Mississippi River in the middle of winter came to be known as The Trail of Tears and saw thousand of Cherokees fall sick, starve, and die along the way. Fun fact: Martin Van Buren was such a boozer that his nickname was Blue Whiskey Van.
8. Warren G. Harding (1921 to 1923) — Unfit For Office
Warren G. Harding, 29th president of the United States, said it best himself: “I am not fit for this office and should never have been here.” Considered good-looking in his day, and quite the player by all accounts, he apparently was chosen by the Republican Party because he was a good old boy who didn’t have much in the way of convictions, moral character, or political opinions. As he was supposed to, he spent his time in office partying with women, playing poker and golf, and looking the other way while his Republican cronies did their worst. His secretary of the interior, for example, let oil industry execs buy their way into using government reserves, which resulted in the Teapot Dome scandal, named after the site of oil reserves in Wyoming. He was wishy-washy on the issues. At the time, America’s participation in the League of Nations, a precursor to the United Nations, was a source of controversy. Harding’s views were so vague that both sides thought he supported them. Democratic leader, William Gibbs McAdoo, called Harding’s speeches “an army of pompous phrases moving across the landscape in search of an idea.” Harding died of a stroke in 1923 while still in office.
7. Zachary Taylor (1849 to 1850) — The Inexperienced Do-Nothing
Zachary Taylor was a major general in the US Army and became something of a national hero during the Mexican-American War. It’s largely that reputation that saw him elected as president. He makes the list mostly because of his failure to do, well, really anything during his 16 months in office. Slavery was a huge issue at the time, one that was causing significant rifts within Congress. Perhaps it was a mistake of the Whig Party, a kind of precursor to the Republicans, to put someone with no real political message or experience into the top seat. Ahem. Taylor was a southerner from Louisiana and a slave owner himself and rather than deal with the issue at all, he preferred to sidestep the whole thing by letting the states decide the matter of slave ownership on their own.
6. William Henry Harrison (1841) — At Least He Was Brief
If it seems unfair to include someone who died of pneumonia just 31 days into his presidential term, we can at least accuse him of a do-nothing presidency. We can also go back into his pre-presidential history to find out what he was known for. As Governor of Indiana Territory in 1811, he led the American forces against the Shawnee nation under Tecumseh and a confederacy of Native American nations who had banded together to resist American occupation of their lands. Harrison’s goal was to destroy the confederacy, and he did it by 1813 during the Battle of the Thames when Tecumseh was killed and the confederacy dissolved. Harrison earned the nickname “Tippecanoe” after the site of one of the battles. One notable achievement — he delivered the longest inaugural address in US history.
5. John Tyler (1841 to 1845) — His Accidency
After Harrison succumbed to illness just one month into his presidency, Vice President John Tyler became the 10th president of the United States — the first to succeed without an election and the longest to serve as such. Tyler seems largely an opinionated opportunist as a politician. (So what else is new?) He began as a Democrat but then joined the Whigs after opposing Andrew Jackson. As president, he proceeded to alienate both the Dems and his own party with his insistence that the president, and not Congress, should set policy. He did so by vetoing many of his own party’s bills — and he became the first president to see his veto overridden by Congress. He was a great believer in so-called Manifest Destiny — or the divine right of America’s European colonists to expand across the entire continent — and kick-started the process of the annexation of Texas. His own party dubbed him “His Accidency.” He tried for a second term but couldn’t get any support. Tyler eventually joined the Confederate government of the South after the Civil War began in 1861 shortly before his death.
4. Millard Fillmore (1850 to 1853) — The Fugitive Slave Act
Sometimes, when you are president, the question becomes, how far should you compromise to save the peace? In the case of the 13th president of the United States, that meant completely selling out to the cause of slavery. Millard Fillmore came to the presidency after the death of Zachary Taylor while in office. The former vice president had disagreed with Taylor’s do-nothing approach to slavery and instead supported the so-called Compromise of 1850. The Compromise consisted of five separate acts, the most notorious of which was formally titled “An Act respecting Fugitives from Justice, and Persons escaping from the Service of their Masters”, and required all escaped slaves to be returned to their masters. He did buy a few year’s peace with the South before the Civil War broke out, but he did so by facilitating the spread of slavery. As the New York Times noted, it was President Fillmore’s “misfortune to see in slavery a political and not a moral question.”
3. James Buchanan (1857 to 1861) — Judicial Meddling
The case of Dred Scott v. Sanford was decided by the US Supreme Court on March 6, 1857, just two days after James Buchanan took office. But, it turns out the court’s controversial decision had been reached under pressure from the president-to-be, who was eager to deal with the slavery issue. Dred Scott had been born a slave but was taken by his master, who served in the military, to various states, some of which had actually outlawed slavery. When the master died, Scott was married and had a child and attempted to buy his freedom from the master’s widow. She refused, and Scott sued for his freedom. This is where Buchanan came into the picture because the case was seen as being decisive when it came to the rights of slaves. The jury found in Scott’s favor, but then the Missouri Supreme Court reversed the decision. Scott appealed to the US Supreme Court, which ruled by a 7-2 majority — thanks to the meddling of James Buchanan and his buddies, U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice John Catron and Associate Justice Robert Cooper Grier — that people of African descent were not deemed to be citizens of the United States and therefore not entitled to freedom. It was widely said that at Buchanan’s inauguration, he met with Chief Justice Taney, who assured him that the whole slavery thing would be promptly dealt with. Fun fact: Buchanan was also known as a heavy drinker.
2. James Polk (1845 to 1849) — Manifest Destiny
James Polk was a great believer in manifest destiny. It’s the belief that America and Americans were literally so special that they had the divine right to spread their colonies throughout North America. The United States Magazine and Democratic Review, a periodical published from 1837 to 1859, described it as “our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” Polk used the belief to justify the Mexican-American War of 1846 to 1848. It was a bloody conflict that had its prominent detractors, including writer and naturalist Henry David Thoreau, who refused to pay taxes that would support the conflict and went to jail for it. When the dust had settled, the US paid Mexico $15 million for half of the territory it encompassed. Polk said, “Our beloved country presents a sublime moral spectacle to the world.”
1. William McKinley (1897 to 1901) — To Civilize And Christianize
Many historians recall McKinley’s presidency as one of rapid economic growth and protectionist tariffs. We, however, will point out his overly enthusiastic endorsement of the manifest destiny doctrine, one that resulted in one of America’s most imperialist presidencies on record. While other presidents had taken similar steps, none were quite as successful; McKinley added the most territory to US coffers. At the time, the people of Cuba went to war against Spain, and McKinley saw the opportunity for his ambitions in the Caribbean and towards the Pacific coast. Secretary of State John Hay called the Spanish-American War of 1898 a “splendid little war,” and it opened up the lucrative sugar and other Caribbean markets to the US and companies like American Tobacco, Bethlehem Steel, and United Fruit, who took over millions of acres of land. The treaty that ended the war with Spain via Cuba gave the US Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. McKinley was said to have agonized over what to do with the Philippines but eventually decided that “they were unfit for self-government.” It was up to America to “civilize and Christianize them.” Now that’s a scary thought.
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