American politics have become so divisive that critics now call every president “The Worst President Ever.” George W. Bush carried that title, and so did Barack Obama. Now Donald Trump gets his turn. Obviously, every president cannot possibly fit that hyperbolic label. Some have been demonstrably worse than others. Just who are the worst presidents in history? We took a look at a recent C-SPAN survey asking 91 historians to rate all 43 former presidents in 10 different categories. It’s the third such poll C-SPAN has conducted since 2001, and predictably, the same names rose to the top in each poll: Lincoln, Washington, FDR, etc. And the bottom feeders of the U.S. presidency sank to the bottom in each poll, too. Here’s a look at the five worst U.S. presidents in the 2017 survey, along with some thoughts on why they were so terrible.
5. John Tyler (10th president, 1841-45)
Tyler’s presidency bore several eerie similarities to Trump’s turn in the White House. Like Trump, Tyler was never expected to be president; sworn in as vice president under William Henry Harrison, he assumed office a month later when Harrison died. Tyler’s critics derisively dubbed him, “His Accidency.” Like Trump, he had his own concepts on policy, and believed Congress should follow along, aggressively using his veto to thwart legislation. And like Trump, Tyler often ran afoul of his own Whig party. In fact, the Whigs, upset at his vetoes, expelled him from the party. As with Trump’s first weeks in office, the tense atmosphere also led to stiff opposition for Tyler’s cabinet nominees, a first for a president.
4. Warren G. Harding (29th president, 1921-23)
Harding died of a heart attack 2 ½ years into his term, and based on what he’d done at that time, he was a competent if unspectacular president. But after his death, news emerged of several scandals involving Harding’s administration. The biggest, the Teapot Dome scandal, involved pay-for-play oil leases that led to Harding’s secretary of the interior, Albert Fall, becoming the first cabinet member to go to prison. In the second, a young secretary, Nan Britton, came forward and claimed that Harding had fathered her daughter several years earlier. While that claim was viewed with suspicion for years, DNA testing in 2015 confirmed Harding as the father.
3. Franklin Pierce (14th president, 1853-57)
Is the difference between a good presidency and a bad one determined in large part by the era in which the president served? It’s worth noting that the three worst presidents in this story served either just before or immediately after the Civil War, an obviously volatile period in U.S. history. On the other hand, six of the top 10 U.S. presidents in the C-SPAN survey were in office from 1945 through the 1980s — the height of the so-called “American Century.” It would be unfair to blame those Civil War-era presidents for all the woes of that period, just as it would be wrong to give those post-World War II presidents all the credit for the post-war boom. In Pierce’s case, personal tragedy probably hurt his presidency. Shortly after Pierce’s election, his 11-year-old son was killed and almost decapitated in a train derailment. But he certainly didn’t help his cause by antagonizing slavery abolitionists and doing little to stem the growing divide between North and South.
2. Andrew Johnson (17th president, 1865-69)
Ushered into office by the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Johnson became the first president to be impeached in the House of Representatives. He avoided conviction — and removal from office — in the Senate by a single vote. He opposed or was indifferent to most issues that would help former slaves. He opposed the Fourteenth Amendment, which granted citizenship to former slaves, and vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1866.
1. James Buchanan (15th president, 1857-61)
It’s interesting — and perhaps not coincidental — that the worst president in U.S. history, James Buchanan, was succeeded by arguably the best, Abraham Lincoln. Buchanan’s indifference and poor leadership fueled the rise of the Civil War; Lincoln’s resolve helped bring the Union back together. Buchanan did believe the seven states that seceded from the Union near the end of his presidency were acting illegally, but he also thought it would be illegal for the U.S. to try to stop them. Lincoln had no such compunction about breaking the law to preserve the Union. Those C-SPAN historians were brutal in assessing Buchanan. He not only ranked last among the 43 former presidents, but he ranked 42nd or 43rd in nine of the 10 survey categories (he was 41st in Administrative Skills). Buchanan was reviled as a bad president even in his lifetime. Just before his death in 1868, he said, “History will vindicate my memory from every unjust aspersion.”