I’ve seen a number of posts the last week or so saying things like, “Only a few more days and we will be rid of the ABSOLUTE WORST PRESIDENT IN HISTORY!” with an accompanying picture of President Obama and his family. Now I realize that there are people who don’t like President Obama and welcome the new guy but worst president in history? That’s a lot of latitude to a number of past leaders, particularly those of the nineteenth century.
I’ve decided to put together a short list of the five presidents whom most historians (there you go again, clouding the issue with facts) consider our worst chief executives.
5. Coming in at number five and our only entrant from the twentieth century, we have Warren G Harding of Ohio.
Our 29th President, Harding, was popular during the two years he served before dying mid-term in 1923 of a stroke. It was after his death that details of multiple scandals began to emerge chiefly his affair with a much younger woman with whom he fathered a child. Harding’s family always denied the affair but recently through DNA testing it was proved once and for all that he was the father. The Teapot Dome scandal involved rigged oil leases on federal land in California. Investigations after Harding’s death uncovered bribes paid to Albert Fall, Secretary of the Interior, by Mammoth Oil Company. Harry Daugherty, the Attorney General was also implicated in a number of kick-back schemes. His head of the Veteran’s Bureau—the predecessor to the VA—was convicted of taking bribes in the construction of Veteran’s Hospitals. Harding was never directly linked to any of the bribery cases but it is a widely held belief that he turned a blind eye to the going on.
4. Number four is a fellow Virginian, John Tyler, tenth President in office from 1841 to 1845.
Tyler was elected vice president but assumed the office when President William Henry Harrison died a month into his first term. Tyler was an avid supporter of States Rights and is the man who annexed the Republic of Texas into the Union, so if you want to know who’s responsible for Rick Perry and Ted Cruz, Tyler’s your man. After his completely unremarkable term in office, he retired to his Plantation and was one of the militia commanders mustered to protect the Commonwealth against John Brown and his attempted slave rebellion. Tyler was also one of the signers of the Confederate Constitution.
3. Coming in at number three we have Franklin Pierce, fourteenth president, in office from 1853 to 1857.
Pierce was beset by multiple personal tragedies including the death of his young son in a train wreck while the family was on its way to Washington for his inauguration. Both Pierce and his wife sank into deep depression and Pierce, for all practical purposes, stayed drunk for his entire term in office. He was known as a doughface, a northerner who was a supporter of the south and the slave system.
2. At number two, we have Andrew Johnson, who assumed office after the assignation of Abraham Lincoln.
Johnson was from Tennessee and was the only sitting senator from a southern state to remain faithful to the Union when his state seceded. Lincoln chose him as his running mate in 1864 because he wanted a southerner on the ticket as the war wound down and for the period of reconstruction that Lincoln had mapped out. After becoming president, Johnson allowed the former leaders of the returning states to return to their leadership roles, thus setting the stage for one hundred years of Jim Crow segregation in the old Confederacy.
1. And at number one, the absolute worst of the worst, we have James Buchanan.
Fifteenth president and the USA’s own version of the Emperor Nero, Buchanan fiddled while the USA burned around him. There was a financial meltdown in 1857 and Buchanan’s plan to rescue the economy was to do absolutely nothing. He also did nothing as the nation was tearing itself apart over slavery and it’s expansion into newly-admitted states, particularly in the west. When it became clear that states were going to secede from the Union, Winfield Scott, the commanding general of the army requested troops and equipment to stop the rebellion before it started. Buchanan did nothing and the country dissolved into Civil War. Buchanan retired to his native Pennsylvania and predicted that history would judge him well. He was wrong.
Honorable Mention: Ulysses Grant, 17th president and former commander of the Union Armies that won the Civil War. His administration was rife with corruption and although being elected to two terms he was an extremely ineffective leader.
Herbert Hoover was Secretary of Commerce before he became president and led one of the great humanitarian missions in history when he led the effort to bring food and aid to the victims of the Russian Civil War in the early 1920’s Hoover was a self-made millionaire and when the Great Depression crippled the country beginning in 1930, Hoover thought the best plan was to do nothing. He thought the market would eventually correct itself and he sat on his hands while hundreds of banks failed and unemployment rose to 25%.
And although this will raise some hackles, I do not believe Ronald Reagan will be viewed kindly by history. He—with all of his deregulation and dismantling of New Deal programs designed to keep the economy safe—is what lit the fuse that led to the Great recession of 2008.
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