10 Worst American Presidents
These guys took incompetence, dishonesty and corruption to the highest levels ever in the history of the United States
Many presidents have come and gone and there have been some good ones and bad ones, who would argue? And then there are the worst of the bunch, the 10 worst, whose misdeeds make people want to rant and curse into the night. Based on events, actual policies and perceived achievements, the author of the list resisted as much as possible a subjective interpretation, though this is difficult to do, of course.
Please note this list does not include men such a John Tyler, Andrew Johnson, Millard Fillmore or Gerald Ford, all of whom were never elected to the presidency. They don’t count for this compilation, because if you weren’t good enough to be elected president, you aren’t good enough to be considered one of the worst. (The list also doesn’t include presidents who were assassinated.)
Please keep reading!
10. William Henry Harrison
William Henry Harrison was an American military general who achieved great fame for his victories in the War of 1812 and the Battle of Tippecanoe, an Indian war against the combined forces of Tecumseh and other Indian leaders. Harrison’s political career began in the late 1700s, though he didn’t take federal office until he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1816.
Harrison had few claims to fame as president. He ordered a special session of Congress in March 1841, so the government could acquire enough funds to keep running. He was also the first president to be photographed while in office. Harrison died of pneumonia on April 4, 1841, just 32 days into his presidency, the shortest term of any president ever. Harrison was 68 when he passed.
No president accomplished less while in office, though, it could be said, perhaps his demise saved us all a great deal of woe.
9. Jimmy Carter
Jimmy Carter wasn’t half as bad as some of the presidents on this list; if anything, he was the victim of bad luck. When Carter took office the economy was marked by stagnation, inflation and high fuel prices, the latter problem exacerbated by the infamous Iran Hostage Crisis, in which 52 Americans were held hostage for 444 days. A rescue mission was launched but failed miserably. Perhaps if the hostages had been rescued Carter would have been a more popular president and won a second term in office.
In 1980, Carter also had the bad luck to run against the Republican juggernaut Ronald Reagan, the so-called Great Communicator who crushed Carter 489 to 49 in the Electoral College. Simply put, it was Reagan’s time to shine, not Carter’s.
At any rate, if Jimmy Carter was one of the worst presidents, he could have made up for it by being a superb private citizen. In 2002 Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize; he’s also written numerous books and provided inspiration and help in many political and humanitarian causes. In fact, Carter may be the most successful ex-president of all time.
8. Ulysses S. Grant
Continuing a long line of former military leaders who entered the presidency, Ulysses S. Grant fought during the Mexican-American War, as well as the Civil War. Grant took office in 1869, what would have been a difficult time for any American President, as this was the days of Reconstruction following the Civil War, when political leaders in the South strove to regain the states’ right lost at the end of the war.
Even though Grant has impressed many in the present day because of his support for the voting rights of African-Americans, leading to the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, and his opposition to the Ku Klux Klan, the corruption of the Grant Administration has become legendary; and his legacy has taken another hit when Grant was held at least partially responsible for the Panic of 1873, which triggered a depression that lasted in the United States and Europe from 1873 to 1879. This was the worst depression the country suffered until the Great Depression of the 1930s.
In favor of Grant, he kept the U.S. out of war while in office from 1869 to 1877, unless battles with Indians and an attempted annexation of the Dominican Republic are included.
7. Franklin Pierce
Franklin Pierce was president from 1853 to 1857, years filled with political debate regarding prominent issues such as slavery and Manifest Destiny. Perhaps Pierce’s worst mistake was his involvement in the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed citizens of the Kansas and Nebraska territories the right to decide if they would allow slavery in their domains, a fractious scenario that led to a bloody civil war in the area. Another unpopular policy Pierce supported was the Ostend Manifesto, which advocated the annexation of Cuba so it could be made into another slavery state. (At this time, Spain controlled Cuba.)
Naturally, Pierce’s position on the aforementioned pivotal issues made Franklin Pierce very unpopular with people in the North and the opposite in the pro-slavery South. In fact, during the Civil War Pierce supported the Confederacy and often exchanged letters with Jefferson Davis.
Piece had the reputation as that of a very thoughtful, charming and likeable person, but he certainly picked the wrong side of the slavery issue.
6. William Jefferson “Bill” Clinton
Bill Clinton had some success while in office. He signed into law the North American Free Trade Agreement, the State Children’s Health Program and reported a budget surplus in the last three years of his presidency. However, he failed to pass a law authorizing universal health care (also known as a single payer plan), perhaps the biggest failure of his presidency.
The Clinton administration may also be the most scandal-ridden one of all time. Nicknamed “Slick Willie” when he was governor of Arkansas, Clinton became only the second president to be impeached. Clinton was charged with perjury and obstruction of justice in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. In fact, throughout Clinton’s presidency, he was beset with “lady trouble.” Two claimed he had sexually harassed them and another claimed she had had an extramarital affair with him that began in 1980. There was also the Whitewater controversy, involving Clinton’s business ventures back in the 1970s and ‘80s.
Interestingly, in opinion polls, Clinton is often listed as one of the best or worst presidents. Moreover, ABC News said of Clinton: “You can’t trust him, he’s got weak morals and ethics – and he’s done a heck of a good job.”
5. Zachary Taylor
Zachary Taylor was another military leader whose fame catapulted him to the presidency, even though his political opinions were virtually unknown and he had no interest in politics. Too bad for our country – or was it? Because Taylor was a Southerner and a slave owner, he generally supported slavery, though he did not advocate the expansion of it to other states and territories, a stance leading to the passage of the Compromise of 1850. Thus, leaving office at his death in July 1850, Taylor’s presidency had little influence in the slavery issue; if anything, it simply delayed the start of the Civil War by a period of years.
Fascinatingly, Taylor’s presidency lasted only 16 months, before he died and was replaced by his vice president, Millard Fillmore, who may have been an even worse president!
4. Warren G. Harding
Warren G. Harding promised a return to normalcy after the end of World War One. And if giving his presidential opponent a sound thrashing in the 1920 election indicated a return to such then he did succeed, beating Democrat James M. Cox 60 to 34 per cent in the popular vote, the largest margin of victory ever for the popular vote. Interestingly, being a staunch conservative Republican, Harding, after taking office, greatly reduced taxes for the richest Americans with passage of the Revenue Act of 1921.
But Harding’s administration was marked by disgrace, particularly the notorious Teapot Dome Scandal, the involvement for which many of Harding’s appointees were sentenced to prison terms. This was considered the worst scandal in the history of the U.S. presidency until the Watergate debacle in the 1970s.
After the death of Harding in 1923, Florence Harding, the former First Lady, destroyed many of Harding’s personal papers, hoping to preserve her husband’s legacy as much as possible.
3. Herbert Hoover
In 1928, Americans were riding high in the saddle, so to speak. Seemingly, everybody and their dog was buying common stock and the economy flourished like no time before. Riding this wave of content, Herbert Hoover easily defended Al Smith, the Democrat, and snatched the presidency of the U.S. But eight months later matters changed dramatically for Hoover during the Wall Street Crash of 1929.
When America’s vaunted stock market deflated like a pierced zeppelin, and many people’s common stock became as valuable as toilet paper, the Great Depression of the 1930s began. Hoping to stanch the bloodletting, Hoover initiated public works such as the construction of Hoover Dam, perhaps his greatest claim to fame. But nothing Hoover did was good enough, and the country suffered grievously.
Being the president at the start of a worldwide depression would never look good on a president’s resume!
2. George W. Bush
Many tumultuous events happened during the administration of George W. Bush. The 9/11 terrorist attacks killed nearly 3,000 people and shook America like no event since the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Then in December 2007 the so-called Great Recession began, costing America – and many other countries in the world - billions of dollars in lost revenue. And, in answer to the 9/11 catastrophe, Bush launched a war on terror by invading Afghanistan in 2001 and then Iraq in 2003. Neither of these wars was funded beforehand, by the way, and the war in Afghanistan is ongoing.
Was Bush to blame for the 9/11 attacks and the Great Recession? At the very least, they happened when Bush was president, so he must take at least some of the blame. It appears, if you like George W. Bush, you don’t blame him for much; otherwise, you include him on a list such as this.
It will be interesting to see how future generations judge the presidency of George W. Bush. Even Bush himself has said this eventuality will be the true judge of his legacy.
1. Richard Nixon
Richard Nixon certainly was responsible for many positive attainments during his presidential career. Nixon initiated environmental policies, enforced desegregation of Southern schools, launched détente with the Soviet Union and resumed diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China. Riding a wave of popularity, Nixon easily won reelection in 1972. But his reputation took an egregious plunge thereafter.
Nixon’s involvement in the infamous Watergate scandal was something from which even “Tricky Dick,” a popular nickname of Nixon’s at the time, couldn’t extricate himself. But Nixon tired. At one point on national TV, he assured the American People, “I’m not a crook. I’ve earned everything I’ve got.” But Nixon certainly appeared “crooked,” because he felt the need to resign from the presidency in August 1974 - the only president ever to resign – to avoid impeachment and eventual removal from office.
The presidency of Richard Nixon was a prime example of how bad a president can get, unless the checks and balances of the Constitution of the U.S. are allowed to protect Americans from people who would become kings or queens.
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© 2014 Kelley Marks