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Worst American Presidents

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The most prominent politician posts have led to some discussions of the worst American presidents. I have Buchanan at the bottom. Scott finds Andrew Johnson even more detestable. I think that in lieu of a state list tonight, I want to produce a worst presidents list.

I also want to be clear that presidents are being judged strictly for their time in office. What they do before or after is irrelevant.

1. James Buchanan. Scott makes a powerful argument for Johnson. I’m going to stick with Buchanan though, as much for the sake of argument as anything else. When the nation is literally collapsing around you and your response is to let the next guy handle it, well, that’s pretty loathsome. Buchanan was a bad president all around, a northerner completely under the thumb of the Southern slave power (see the Lecompton Constitution for one piece of evidence). But it’s for his response to succession that he gets the title of worst president.

2. Andrew Johnson. I’ve long had Pierce here. But Scott’s convinced me at least this far. Johnson did have a wide range of actions he could have taken. He chose the worse. Without good reason, I’ve always been a little less harsh on him than Buchanan or Pierce because no one elected him president. So some of the blame falls on Lincoln and his endless obsession with luring supposed loyal white southerners back into the Union. This might have been Lincoln’s greatest weakness and one wonders how harshly he would have treated the white South after the war. But he couldn’t have done a worse job than Johnson. That would be impossible.

3. Franklin Pierce. The Kansas-Nebraska Act. Enough said. Weak and worthless.

4. Richard Nixon. People always say that Nixon signed all this good legislation, etc. And that’s true, even though he didn’t want to do any of it. But for permanently changing how Americans see the presidency and politicians in general, he deserves out loathing. Take out Vietnam and Cambodia and he still belongs here.

5. John Tyler. Tyler got some discussion in the comment threads about worst president. I put him here not because he committed treason in 1861, but because he did more than anyone in the 1840s to move this nation toward Civil War. Seeing that he had no chance of being nominated by the Democrats or the Whigs in 1844, he decided to throw his horse fully behind John C. Calhoun and southern extremism, hoping to build support that way. He named Calhoun as Secretary of State, leading to the Pakenham Letter and extreme embarrassment for non-slaveholding Americans. His aggressive moves to annex Texas furthered northern belief in a southern slaveholding conspiracy. Awful.

6. George W. Bush. It drove me nuts during the Bush Administration when people routinely called Bush the worst president ever. He is very, very bad. We can pray he’ll be the worst of the 21st century. Torture, disastrous economic policies, Iraq, etc., are all good reasons for him to be at the bottom of the list. And honestly, if the economy continues to plummet, Bush’s reputation may actually go even lower. But for all of this, he’s clearly not as bad as Buchanan, Johnson, and Pierce. You could arguably put him 4th and I wouldn’t complain.

7. Warren Harding. Tolerated tremendous amounts of corruption, a total non-entity of a leader. Essentially worthless. The people who work at the Warren Harding home disputed this characterization of him when I visited there, pointing to various treaties and his collection of fraternal hats and bicycles. It was very exciting.

8. Herbert Hoover. In some ways I feel bad for Hoover. A better man than Harding or Coolidge in almost every way, at a different time he might have made a good president. But he was a disaster for the Great Depression. Unable to comprehend that the government had a role to play in fighting the Depression, he let the country reach its lowest point since the Civil War. He was also a nasty, nasty racist, but I guess that shouldn’t matter here. Also, signing the Smoot-Hawley Tariff.

9. Calvin Coolidge–generally a bad person in almost all areas. Vetoed the Bonus Act to give World War I vets a pension (later immortalized in the Bonus Army). Supported the immigration restrictions that led to the Immigration Act of 1924. Opposed the entire Progressive Era legislative package, which he had fought as Governor of Massachusetts and which he did nothing to promote during his years in office. Vastly reduced taxes on rich people. His only redeeming quality was that he was generally less openly racist than many politicians of the time, disliking the complete exclusion of the Japanese in the Immigration Act (not that this stopped him from signing it) and promoting citizenship for Native Americans.

And a curveball for #10.

10. James Madison. The War of 1812 was so incredibly stupid that Madison deserves this spot. The war nearly cost the nation its existence. A great man. A bad president.

One could make an argument for Jefferson in this spot as well, as the Embargo was arguably the single worst foreign policy mistake in American history. And he nearly botched the Louisiana Purchase, the easiest call in American foreign policy history.

I really wanted to put Reagan on here. But I can’t help but give the bastard credit for not listening to the crazies in his administration and talking to Gorbachev. For everything else, he’s awful. For being realistic about what he could do with the Soviet Union despite his rhetoric, I suppose Grandpa Caligula deserves a touch of credit.

I also think Gerald Ford and Millard Fillmore both suck. And of course Hayes, Cleveland, Harrison, and most of the other Gilded Age presidents are somewhere between bad and very bad. Arguments could be made for Cleveland and Hayes particularly.

As you can probably tell, I would argue that most of our presidents have been mediocre or worse. How the nation succeeded despite the often terrible leadership at the top is for another post.

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