Picking the five worst presidents of all time is a hard job. For one, there’s never been a “good” President of the United States, meaning that the pool to pick from for Top Five Worst of All Time is exactly as big as the number of presidents. Secondly, there’s no standard criteria for worst or best, so a rubric has to be made from scratch. For this particular list I ranked them according to an esoteric scale of historical relevance, bumbling stupidity, general sleaze, and sheer venality. Finally, while ranking atrocities isn’t particularly fun, in today’s political climate it’s important to remember that the US presidency is a long line of terrible rulers and champions of capital that both Donald Trump and Joe Biden are continuations of. Also, the articles declaring Trump worst president of all time will soon be popping up in internet chum boxes the world round. While the best histories of this presidency won’t be written for several decades, we know enough about other presidents to rank them. Trump aside, here is my list of the top five worst Presidents of all time.
- James Buchanan
The word “dunderhead” doesn’t get used enough to describe presidents. Dunderhead, a wonderful way to describe someone who is not smart, perfectly describes the 15th President of the United States. Buchanan was a dunderhead of the highest degree. Unable to grasp the calamity the country was heading toward, perhaps no other US citizen was more ill-equipped to deal with the problems of a pre-Civil War United States. He famously believed that secession was illegal but also that going to war to stop it was illegal. It was the one position guaranteed to make everyone hate you. In addition to his inability or willingness to stop either slavery or the Civil War, he also loved the Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court. Dred Scott v. Sanford was the court case that declared that African-American men cannot be and were not meant to be citizens of the United States. In his inaugural address he referred to the problem of slave and free states as “happily a matter of but little practical importance.” Just not a good guy.
- William Henry Harrison
The temptation with William Henry Harrison is to rank him as the best President of all time, if only because he died within thirty-two days of taking office. However, I refuse to partake in such easy assessments. There have been plenty of dumb presidents, but WHH really takes the cake. He decided to give the longest inaugural speech in presidential history in the middle of a very cold rainstorm. Soon after he caught a cold which led to pneumonia and then his death. Prior to his election he was best known as a frontier Governor who was famous for killing Tecumseh, one of the leaders of Native resistance to westward expansion. While Harrison was generally regarded as someone with middle of the road politics for the time, and ran as a “common man,” he came from a wealthy Virginia slave-holding family. Also middle of the road politics for the time were mainly pro-slavery, and pro-Native genocide. Just a real all-around idiot.
- Warren G. Harding
Warren G. Harding did not regulate and loved corruption. Participating in it, allowing it to happen under his watch, you name it. For him, there was nothing better than subverting the institutions and laws of the United States in order to make a little extra money. He also ran for president against Eugene Debs, famed socialist and political activist, so Harding can eat rocks for all I care. The Teapot Dome, a bribery scheme involving the Secretary of the Interior and several oil companies, was until Watergate, the biggest political scandal in United States history. While Harding wasn’t directly involved in this scandal, it occurred on his watch and sullied his presidency. In addition, his presidency often turned a blind eye to, and even itself used, the corrupt patronage networks that were a main feature of the Teapot Dome Scandal. Misconduct in the Justice Department, Veteran’s Bureau, as well as several extramarital affairs all occurred during his presidency. In short, Harding allowed many of his friends to get rich through government appointments. Harding himself is often quoted as saying, “I am not fit for this office and never should have been here.” At least he realized it, I guess.
- Ronald Reagan
The boogey man of present day leftists, Reagan destroyed union power, furthered the power of the conservative right, cut social services to the bone, increased red-baiting, allowed thousands of people to die of AIDS, and helped create the blueprint for the current foreign policy of the United States. He famously fired 12,000 striking air traffic controllers, breaking their strike and their union. In addition, he increased the militancy and racial aspects of the War on Drugs, creating minimum sentencing for drug offenses, and choosing to make harsher penalties for “crack” cocaine than regular powder cocaine. He also refused to acknowledge the AIDS epidemic for years, and when he did, he suggested that children with AIDS could be kept out of schools. Despite being a monster, both Democrats and Republicans continue to hold him up as some sort of saint. The list of his crimes should be read out in schools instead of the Pledge of Allegiance.
- Andrew Johnson
Truthfully, every one of these presidents could take the number one spot. Johnson gets it here, partly because of his underdog status. Many people know about Reagan. But not everyone knows about Johnson. A southerner added to the Lincoln ticket in an attempt to create some sense of national unity, Johnson did everything he could to stifle Radical Reconstruction. Radical Reconstruction was an effort to both quell the power of former slave owners in the South, and to provide some recompense to former slaves. Johnson thought even its minor efforts went too far. His protestations against the efforts of the Republicans in Congress to enact their reforms led to his eventual impeachment, though he was not removed from office. At a time when the United States was in a position to change for the good, and a number of people in power were working to right the wrongs of slavery, Johnson fought them at every turn. An unelected President, he allowed former slave owners to return to power in the South setting the stage for the creation of the Black Codes and Jim Crow. He also said stuff like, “Slavery exists. It is black in the South, and white in the North.” Just a real POS.