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Who Was the Worst President in American History?

Cprice75 is a graduate student studying history, including labor history.

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

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.

After his election in 2016, Donald Trump has taken the place of George W. Bush's mantle for liberals. These comments take up much of a person's Facebook feed, and they seem to be going nowhere anytime soon. Chances are that the next president will have people saying the same thing about them 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 never to 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. One thing that was 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 Ulysses 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.

As mentioned previously, most of the presidents listed above 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), but 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. The scandal was so rampant that it led to a new term: Grantism.

More recently, C-SPAN polled 142 historians to rate all of the presidents. The men (and they have all been men) at the top of the list were a little different than similar recent polls. Lincoln, Washington, the Roosevelts, and Truman were near the top of this list. President Eisenhower is also near the top.

Interestingly, the most recent presidents are polar opposites when it comes to the view of historians. President Obama and President Trump, both polarizing figures, showed up near the margins of the poll. Obama moved into the top ten, while historians viewed Trump as the 41st out of the 44 men who have held the office. Indeed, they ranked him as the worst president since Johnson--not Lyndon, but Andrew Johnson. Perhaps in contrast to the view of these historians on the most recent president to serve a full term, George W. Bush moved up the rankings from 33rd to 29th.

James Buchanan: The worst president ever?

James Buchanan: The worst president ever?

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? What about Donald Trump? 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.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2012 Chris Price