For at least the last forty years, political detractors have heatedly denounced every contemporary president as the worst ever to occupy the Oval Office.
And they have been wrong every time.
Making “worst ever” assertions evidently evokes some level of juvenile glee, and it may rally political allies. Trump himself won election partly by deriding Barack Obama as “the worst president, maybe in the history of our country.”
But those short-term payoffs come at an unacceptable cost.
False “worst ever” claims stem from deep political and historical ignorance. They assume that the past has nothing useful to teach us, that neither context nor evidence really matter. Most of all, they perpetuate the bogus and arrogant notion that any sweeping historical claim is credible as long as it affirms our present biases.
Serious study of the past can inhibit these childish intellectual reflexes. Historical literacy tempers our judgments, contextualizes our current concerns, and instills a sense of humility about the human condition.
If he is to join the ranks of our worst chief executives, then Trump has his work cut out for him. A brief review of our poorest presidents to date will underscore the difficulty of matching or exceeding their dismal legacies.
The Worst President Ever: James Buchanan (1857–1861)
James Buchanan caused the deaths of more than 600,000 Americans and inflicted untold misery on millions more.
In antebellum America, Democrats like Buchanan believed in low taxes, limited government, white supremacy, and the South’s right to perpetuate its “peculiar institution.”
Over the preceding quarter-century, sectional conflicts had increasingly poisoned national politics. Antislavery sentiment in the North had grown from a fringe religious movement to a matter of mainstream concern and the central organizing principle of a new political party, the Republicans. Meanwhile, the South’s rationale for racist human bondage mutated from amoral practicality to paranoid fanaticism.
The political debate had turned violent before Buchanan took office. Open warfare had already raged for three years between abolitionist and proslavery settlers in “Bleeding Kansas.” Meanwhile, in the Capitol, a southern Congressman savagely bludgeoned an abolitionist Republican on the Senate floor.
Determined to end the sectional conflict, Buchanan called on an old friend and fellow Democrat, Chief Justice Roger Taney. Working behind the scenes, the president pressured Taney and two other justices to secure an expansive Supreme Court ruling in the pending Dred Scott case to “speedily and finally settle” the political question of slavery.
The pliant justices happily obliged. (So much for judicial independence and separation of powers.) In a 7–2 decision, the Supreme Court denied Dred Scott’s individual claim to freedom, not on the merits of the case, but by redefining black people as subhuman noncitizens: “beings of an inferior order… with no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Moreover, by ruling the Missouri Compromise of 1820 unconstitutional, the court converted northern territories long designated as “free soil” into potential slave states.
Though pleased — indeed, thrilled — by the ruling, Buchanan had badly miscalculated. Instead of demoralizing his political opponents, the hideous miscarriage of justice energized antislavery northerners and grew Republican ranks. Sectional conflict intensified. Kansas bled more. John Brown’s failed 1859 effort to foment a slave rebellion at Harper’s Ferry terrified the South, but when the North honored the hanged man as an abolitionist martyr, that terror turned to rage.
Meanwhile, the economy floundered. Shortly after Buchanan took office, the Panic of 1857 wiped out hundreds of banks, causing widespread unemployment and poverty in northern cities. In keeping with Jeffersonian and Jacksonian principles, the president refused federal relief to the Panic’s victims. With some truth, Buchanan blamed reckless investors and crooked bankers for the economic crisis, but completely ignored his own culpability: First, his party’s longstanding opposition to federal banking regulations directly promoted rampant speculation and corruption. Second, as Buchanan’s blunders escalated the sectional conflict, investors got spooked. Their wariness exacerbated the financial crisis, deepening and prolonging the ensuing depression.
Buchanan’s constant appeasement of the South alienated northern Democrats, prompting a power struggle between him and his party’s strongest leader in Congress, Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois. That spat split the Democratic ticket in several states, which helped hand the House and Senate to Republicans in the 1858 midterm elections. To compound the blunder, Buchanan loyalists lost intraparty battles everywhere except in his home state of Pennsylvania. Democrats remained a strong minority in Congress, but paid allegiance now to Douglas, not the White House.
Defanged and disheartened, the president declined to run for a second term. During the election of 1860, he watched helplessly as his party split into northern and southern factions. Democrats in Dixie flatly vowed to secede if Abraham Lincoln won.
Incredibly, Buchanan did nothing to stop them. Winfield Scott, the Army’s Commanding General, urged the president to raise troops for deployment in the South, both to protect federal assets and to discourage secession. Buchanan refused.
In December 1860 — after the Electoral College affirmed Lincoln’s election — southern states started seceding. Belatedly, Buchanan briefly considered sending some reinforcements south, but he let his Secretary of War — John Floyd of Virginia — talk him out of it. A few days later, Floyd resigned to join his home state in secession and treason.
Until he left office on March 4, 1861, Buchanan continued to appease the Rebels. In the end, he gave the Confederacy a four-month head start in the Civil War. He let the South seize federal forts, arsenals and naval vessels, which they soon used to wage war upon the very country he had solemnly sworn to protect.
In order to wrest the title of worst president from Buchanan, a contemporary commander in chief would need to wreck the economy, revoke all human rights from an entire race, violate the constitutional separation of powers, and plunge the country into a ruinous civil war that kills nearly 2% of the US population.
The Worst of the Rest: Other Regrettable Presidents
Like Buchanan, fellow Democrat Franklin Pierce (1853–57) consistently appeased the South. He signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, opening the eponymous territories to slavery, which led swiftly to “Bleeding Kansas.” Determined to add still more slave states, he offered to buy Cuba from Spain, and threatened to seize the island if Madrid refused to sell. Decades later, Theodore Roosevelt aptly described Pierce as “a servile tool of men worse than himself… ever ready to do any work the slavery leaders set him.”
Pierce took his expansionist cues from yet another Democrat, James K. Polk (1845–49). Dubbed “Napoleon of the Stump” for his short stature and fierce oratory, Polk vaulted from relative obscurity to the White House on the strength of preposterous smack talk. During the 1844 campaign, his slogan “54° 40' or Fight” threatened war with the world’s most powerful empire if Britain declined to surrender the entire Oregon Country to the United States (at the time a military and naval weakling). London called Polk’s bluff and kept the northern half of the disputed territory (British Columbia), but let the US have what is now Oregon, Washington and Idaho. Polk prudently backed down and took the deal.
He proved much harder on Mexico. When Santa Anna refused Polk’s offer to buy California for chump change, Napoleon of the Stump sent the US Army across the Rio Nueces into Mexico. When Santa Anna’s troops tried to resist, Polk lied to Congress, claiming that our southern neighbors had “shed American blood on American soil.” This secured a declaration of war and prompted a full-scale invasion. After US forces stormed the Halls of Montezuma, Polk stole the northern half of Mexico.
Polk drew inspiration from his mentor, fellow Democrat and Tennessean Andrew Jackson (1829–37). After introducing unprecedented cronyism, Old Hickory shredded the Constitution: directly defying a Supreme Court ruling protecting the property rights of Native Americans, Jackson ordered the forced removal of the Cherokee and other tribes from their lands into exile west of the Mississippi River — a region then known as the Great American Desert. He also wrecked the economy by killing off the Second Bank of the United States and causing the Panic of 1837, an economic crisis that ruined the presidency and reputation of his hapless successor, friend, and former co-conspirator, Martin Van Buren (1837–41).
Jackson caused such alarm that a new political party — the Whigs — organized just to stop him. United only by hatred for Old Hickory, the Whigs were an awkward alliance between northern neo-Hamiltonians and southern proto-secessionists. In 1840, the anti-Jackson party nominated an aging war hero for president, and balanced the ticket with a running mate from the Whigs’ southern firebrand faction.
Unfortunately for the Whigs, pneumonia killed William Henry Harrison after just one month in office, so Vice-President John Tyler (1841–45) of the party’s psychotically proslavery faction became Commander in Chief. A diehard Jeffersonian, Tyler kept vetoing every neo-Hamiltonian bill passed by mainstream Whigs in Congress. In frustration, the Whigs disowned him — “read him out of the party,” in the parlance of the day. Tyler remains the only president kicked out of his own political party while in office. Hoping to remain in the White House, he crawled back to the Democrats, but Jackson (retired, but still alive) and his cronies rebuffed him, refusing to forgive Tyler’s former apostasy. Desperate to claim some kind of legacy, Tyler as a lame duck persuaded Congress to admit Texas (then an independent country) as a new slave state.
Tragically, the worst vice-president ever to ascend to the Oval Office succeeded our greatest commander-in-chief. When running for reelection in 1864, Lincoln ran not as a Republican but as the candidate of the National Union Party — a temporary alliance between the GOP and anti-appeasement Democrats who actually wanted to win the Civil War. Accordingly, Lincoln dumped his sitting vice-president and took as his running mate a Democrat from Tennessee who had remained loyal to the Union even after his state seceded. Balancing the ticket like that made sense because Lincoln was young and healthy, and vice-presidents rarely matter unless presidents die.
Unfortunately, Lincoln’s assassination promoted Andrew Johnson (1865–69) to the Oval Office. Although the South had just surrendered, the Civil War was far from settled. Johnson liberally pardoned Rebel traitors who should have hanged. An avowed racist, he repeatedly vetoed every effort to protect the rights of freedmen (former slaves) in the South. When Congress overrode his vetoes, he abused his authority as commander-in-chief to interfere with the Secretary of War’s efforts to enforce those laws. In 1868, a frustrated House of Representatives impeached him, but the Senate missed the two-thirds threshold needed to remove him from office by a mere one-vote margin.
Among many mediocre Gilded Age presidents, Rutherford B. Hayes (1877–1881) stands out as particularly poor. Suppression of black votes in the South produced disputed election returns in the presidential election of 1876. Political hacks cut a backroom deal — the Compromise of 1877 — where Democrats agreed to let Hayes become president if Republicans promised to end Reconstruction and withdraw federal troops from Dixie. Hayes honored this bargain, shifting the identity of the GOP from the party of racial justice to the party of big business. Leaving impoverished freedmen defenseless against heavily armed white supremacists, Hayes withdrew the U.S. Army from the South and redeployed some forces in the North to suppress the Great Railroad Strike.
Republicans Warren Harding (1921–23) and Calvin Coolidge (1923–29) caved in to nativists and signed hateful laws that basically banned nonwhite immigration, while sharply limiting entries from southern and eastern Europe (because white Protestants disliked “swarthy” Catholics and Jews).
Harding’s administration proved incredibly corrupt. He and Coolidge also invented modern economic conservatism: tax cuts for the rich, with no effective business regulation to protect workers or consumers. That produced a robust boom followed by the Great Crash and the deepest depression in world history. Far more than fellow Republican Herbert Hoover (1929–33), Harding and Coolidge deserve the blame for causing the Great Depression.
Hoover, however, failed to get Americans the help they needed in an unprecedented economic catastrophe. Hamstrung by his ideology of “rugged individualism,” he appealed to corporations to put patriotism over profits. When that failed, Hoover fell back on GOP orthodoxy and raised tariffs to compel consumers to buy American. This backfired badly. Our trade partners promptly retaliated in kind. Lost export markets hurt far more than reduced imports helped, so the depression only deepened. Late in the game, Hoover compromised his conservative principles by authorizing some public works projects to create jobs, but fiscal conservatism constrained both the scope and impact of those efforts: Too little, too late.
The president compounded his policy failures with hamhanded brutality. When impoverished World War I veterans camped in the capital to petition for relief, Hoover ordered the Army to evict them. Ever overzealous, Douglas MacArthur swept in with infantry, cavalry and tanks, using bayonets and bullets to scatter the veterans and their families before burning their shelters and belongings.
Another Republican, Richard Nixon (1969–74), managed to betray his country even before taking office. During his 1968 campaign, “Tricky Dick” destroyed our best chance to win the Vietnam War. A month before the election, Lyndon Johnson had a promising peace deal on the table in Geneva. Reeling from military setbacks, Hanoi was ready to agree, with enthusiastic support from its chief sponsor, the USSR. South Vietnam’s backers — America and France — also expressed eagerness to deescalate. Recognizing that an armistice would likely hand the White House to Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, the Nixon campaign convinced South Vietnam to refuse to sign — to hold out for a better deal from Tricky Dick, after the election.
Nixon’s treason prolonged the war and snatched defeat from the jaws of possible victory. There was little practical difference between LBJ’s 1968 near-deal and the 1973 agreement negotiated by Henry Kissinger, but the military and political situation in South Vietnam had deteriorated dramatically in the five intervening years. With continued US support, Saigon might have survived in 1968, but by 1973, Hanoi had decisively regained the military advantage. Moreover, support in Congress and among the American people for South Vietnam remained strong in 1968, but had dwindled considerably by 1973. Nixon knew his peace deal sealed the South’s doom; he hoped only for a “decent interval” between the Paris Accords and Saigon’s inevitable fall. Indiscriminately slaughtering civilians, the Communists completed their conquest of South Vietnam in 1975. Nixon’s illegal expansion of the war into neighboring Cambodia helped destabilize that country, leading to the annihilation of more than two million people — one-quarter of the population — by the Khmer Rouge.
Tricky Dick’s domestic legacy rivaled the evil of his foreign policy. He courted white supremacists with his “Southern Strategy,” with his racially coded “law and order” rhetoric, and with his “War on Drugs” that lumped marijuana with truly dangerous drugs to justify disrupting minority communities and attacking the counterculture. And then there was Watergate.
Most living Americans vividly remember the misdeeds of George W. Bush (2001–2009). Having inherited budget surpluses and a dwindling national debt, the Republican blew all that by signing a ten-year schedule of escalating tax cuts skewed heavily toward the wealthy. Most wartime presidents raise taxes to defray expenses, but Dubya stubbornly stuck to his tax cut plans even after 9/11 required an invasion of Afghanistan. Before getting that situation in hand, he built a deceptive case for an incursion into Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein and seize his mythical weapons of mass destruction. That made enemies, alienated allies, sank the US into an inconclusive quagmire, and ultimately destabilized the entire region, facilitating the rise of ISIL.
Combining tax cuts with costly wars had already erased budget surpluses and replaced them with ballooning deficits; then, the 2007 financial crisis struck. Deregulation under Bush had encouraged reckless lending. When the housing bubble burst, Dubya borrowed boldly to bail out banks, protect their profits, sustain CEO salaries and bonuses, and comprehensively insulate the rich from the logical consequences of their bad behavior. Meanwhile, regular Americans lost their jobs, earned less, and took hits to their net worth from which most still have not fully recovered.
After just two months, Trump does not belong in any conversation about our country’s worst all-time presidents (or the best ones, either, obviously).
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