Who Was the Worst President in American History?
Many People Forget History in Favor of the Present
Based upon the frequent posts on Facebook, Twitter, and various blogs and message boards, many Americans think that either George W. Bush (for liberals) or Barack Obama (for conservatives/libertarians) is the absolute worst president ever to occupy the White House. These comments continue and seem to be going nowhere anytime soon. Chances are that the next president will have people saying the same thing about him or her within months (or even days) of taking the oath of office.
George Washington can't count as the worst ever to occupy the White House, although he could be considered the worst president to never occupy the White House, as well as the best. His successor, John Adams, was the first president to live in the new presidential mansion in the Federal City later known as Washington, D. C.
In thinking of the best and worst presidents ever, it is a bit problematic to include men such as Bush or Obama, because the full impact of their actions and policies are difficult to gauge from such a short chronological distance. For example, Harry Truman was fairly unpopular during his time in office, yet now he is now considered one of the better presidents in United States history because of his handling of important events in the late World War II and early Cold War era.
What Makes a Bad President?
In 2007, US News and World Report averaged five different polls to come up with the worst president in American History. They updated their list with a slide show at the end of 2014. One thing that is quite evident in their list, as it is in various other similar lists is the time period that most of the worst presidents inhabited. Most of those considered terribly bad tended to serve in the years just before or after the US Civil War. What is the reason for this chronological concentration? One important thing that these presidents tend to have in common is a belief that the President should to some degree defer to Congress.
None of the nineteenth-century presidents on the list from one of the polls used by US News and World Report could be considered an activist president. In other words, they did not lead. Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. questioned 55 major historians to come up with the list in question, which included such well-remembered presidents as U. S. Grant (president from 1869-1877), Franklin Pierce (1853-1857), James Buchanan (1857-1861), Zachary Taylor (1849-1850), Millard Fillmore (1850-1853), and John Tyler 1841-1844). More recent polls, including that listed by US News and World Report, list Buchanan as the worst. This belief seems to have a fairly strong consensus.
Most of the presidents listed above, as mentioned previously were not considered strong leaders with great ideas. Three served only partial terms, as Taylor died in office and Fillmore succeeded him. Tyler was the same Tyler from the Tippecanoe and Tyler Too slogan. He succeeded Old Tippecanoe, William Henry Harrison, after the latter caught pneumonia and died just one month following his excessively long inaugural address in a cold spring rain.
Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce (himself an ancestor of George W. Bush through his mother's line), and Buchanan all had to deal with the major sectional difficulties that festered below the surface for years and then blew up after the Mexican-American War. None did a good job of dealing with the situation.
Buchanan generally gets to inhabit the bottom of the barrel in terms of US presidents because he did nothing to deal with the sectional difficulties and then did nothing to stop the secession of South Carolina as a lame duck after the election of Abraham Lincoln. It could also be argued that presidents such as James K. Polk and Andrew Jackson were the worst because of some of their (nearly universally deplored) misdeeds, such as starting a war with Mexico that many contemporaries questioned on moral grounds and the removal of American Indians to the southern edge of the Great American Desert, AKA Oklahoma.
Corruption around various presidents also tends to earn a spot on the list. Although he was not on the list given by Schlesinger's historians, Richard Nixon was on the US News and World Report list. Not only was Nixon considered corrupt (so much so that he had to resign from office in 1974), he also had several associates imprisoned for various improprieties during his administration.
The Teapot Dome Scandal (which interestingly had to do with oil companies in the 1920s) rocked the administration of Warren G. Harding, although Harding himself was not really considered an active participant in the scandal. Likewise, the administration of Ulysses S. Grant was riddled with controversy. Many of Grant's associates were quite unscrupulous. An attempt to corner the gold market and the infamous Credit Mobilier Scandal are among the better known scandals that occurred while Grant was president. Scandal was so rampant that it led to a new term: Grantism.
The Final Verdict
The presidents listed above, such as Grant, Buchanan, and Nixon, could also have presidents such as Andrew Johnson and Herbert Hoover listed. Those who view big government as a problem might find Franklin Delano Roosevelt (and his cousin Teddy), Woodrow Wilson, Lyndon B. Johnson, and even Abraham Lincoln as poor historical examples, although most polls of historians would hold these men, with the possible exception of LBJ, among the better presidents in US history.
Will George W. Bush or Barack Obama find themselves on similar lists fifty years from now? Or will historians be more kind than their contemporaries? The answer to these questions is difficult to tell at this point. One thing that is quite evident, a rehabilitation of James Buchanan's reputation is not likely anytime soon, and he will most likely continue to be considered the worst president in American history until someone comes along who is worse. Hopefully, that person doesn't come anytime soon.