I don’t know why I thought of this on Inauguration Day. I was following my usual morning routine of drinking coffee, reading news on my iPad and procrastinating about walking the dog. Then it suddenly occurred to me to ask Google a question that I figured would be too nuanced for Siri. Who was the worst American president in history?
U.S. News and World Report averaged the results of five different polls. Their answer was James Buchanan, president from 1857 to 1861, preceding Abraham Lincoln. He was believed to have influence over the infamous Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court that denied the government’s ability to prevent the spread of slavery into the Western territories. He helped precipitate and then presided over the Panic of 1857, assuring Americans that there was little he could do about it. His most definitive response was to reduce the amount of gold and silver in coins. As for foreign policy, he once sent troops into South America to try to annex parts of Paraguay. And he rushed troops to the Canadian border to participate in a standoff that resulted when a Hudson’s Bay Company pig was shot by an American settler. It was under his watch that Southern states began to secede from the Union.
When the question was put to Quora users, a popular choice was the man whose oversized head defaces the $20 bill. Influenced by having watched the play Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson not too many years ago, he’s my personal choice. He is most widely reviled, and deservedly so, for the Indian Removal Act, which forced the relocation of 45,000 Native Americans and led to the Trail of Tears. This slave-owner virtually institutionalized the practice of patronage in his hiring to federal jobs thus paving the way for future generations of Cabinet nominees like Betsy DeVos. He openly defied the Supreme Court after the justices issued a ruling that was favorable to Native Americans in Georgia. With a human rights record that is about the same level as that of Attila the Hun, jail would have been a more appropriate home for this guy than the White House.
George W. Bush
Now that the Presidency is in the hands of a narciscistic blowhard, I have softened by view of Dubya. Here is a man who probably would know the right people to put together a dynamite backyard barbeque. But a History News Network poll of historians tabs Bush Deux as our worst-ever president. That reminded me of the fact that he sent us into war based on utter bullshit. He turned a healthy budget surplus into a massive deficit by reducing taxes for the wealthy while increasing spending. And he let Wall Street run amok until the combination of their greed and challenged ethics produced the recession of ’08. One of the surveyed historians characterized him as “glib, contemptuous, ignorant, incurious, a dupe of anyone who humors his deluded belief in his heroic self.”
A 2006 Siena College poll that included 744 professors placed Andrew Johnson at the bottom of the pile. Johnson was president from 1865-1869. He had been vice president when Lincoln was assassinated. Based on some administrative rules that I don’t understand, Congress impeached Johnson in 1868 but fell one vote short of removing him from office. A former pro-slavery governor of Tennessee (how the hell did Lincoln pick this guy?), Johnson vetoed every civil rights bill Congress passed and condoned white terrorism in the south. He is generally considered to have set the stage for the Jim Crow south. His total unfitness to hold the office can be summed up in his own words. “This is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am president, it will be a government for white men.” This is not a president who was ever elected.
A 1996 poll of academics by noted historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., points the finger of shame at Warren Harding. Harding won a landslide victory in the Presidential election of 1920 campaigning against Woodrow Wilson’s globalism and becoming the first Presidential candidate to play the red scare card. In office he refused to recognize post-revolution Russia. Harding is not so much reviled for what he did but rather for how little he did. He only lasted two years. He suddenly died of a heart attack in 1922 after originally being diagnosed with food poisoning. His brief time in office was characterized by charges of corruption against others in his administration, the best known of which is the Teapot Dome Scandal. Affairs with other women were also part of the buzz around his presidency and it is believed that the Republican Party paid hush money to one, Carrie Phillips, who was a German sympathizer during the war. No one has ever substantiated the rumors that his wife poisoned him.