Former President Donald Trump has been taking a lot of heat lately. Trump is the central figure in several lawsuits, investigations, and scandals. Some observers even believe Trump is on the verge of becoming the first president in US history ever charged criminally.
For what? There are multiple possibilities! Trump could be charged for his role in the January 6th riots, or Trump could be charged for the mishandling of sensitive documents, or he could be charged for both. For Trump’s alleged criminality, plus his lack of decorum, procedural desecration, and general MAGA-ness, many Americans rank Trump as one of the all-time worst presidents.
But does Trump deserve such disdain? Is Trump one of the worst presidents of all-time? Despite Trump’s actual and alleged transgressions, he doesn’t make my bottom five worst presidents lists. While it may be too early to judge the true, lasting effect of the Trump presidency, my impression is that other administrations have had, and will have, a more lasting, negative effect on the course of US and world history.
5. Franklin Pierce (1853-1857)
The 14th president suffered a personal tragedy just before taking office. Franklin Pierce’s last surviving son (of three) was killed in a train accident just before Pierce’s inauguration ceremony. People close to Pierce said that he was heartbroken and despondent from the moment he took office, that he wasn’t in the right mindset to serve as president. Yet, serve as President Pierce did, in an administration that is widely panned.
Pierce viewed the abolitionist movement as an existentialist threat to America, meaning that Pierce supported the institution of slavery. As a result, Pierce marginalized anti-slavery groups – especially when he signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Fugitive Slave Act into law. Basically, Pierce’s administration helped pave the way for the US Civil War.
4. Herbert Hoover (1929-1933)
The 31st president tended to micromanager, yet he was an ineffective communicator. The combination was unfortunate and frustrating for staffers working beneath Herbert Hoover. While Hoover is remembered as a talented administrator who saved Europe from famine after each of the world wars, Hoover employed austerity measures during the US Great Depression, which failed to revive the decimated economy.
The Depression was an epically bad hand for Hoover to have been dealt – but he played his hand poorly. Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to replace Hoover and quickly enacted the New Deal – which is generally recognized as helping America claw out of the depression, and generally used to frame the Hoover administration as a do-nothing disaster.
3. George W. Bush (2001-2009)
Donald Trump doesn’t even top my list of worst 21st century presidents. George W. Bush, the 43rd president, doesn’t make many Worst President lists. But he makes mine. Bush launched the Iraq War under the false pretext that Saddam Hussein a) possessed weapons of mass destruction, and b) had connections to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda terrorist network.
Neither pretext proved true. Bush’s true objective was regime change and the installation of a pro-American democracy in Iraq – which was to be the first of many in the MENA region. Bush failed to pull off his masterplan, however. Instead, we got a draining, lingering conflict that cost thousands of US lives, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives – and helped give rise to ISIS.
Rounding out Bush’s resume, he launched America’s longest-ever war in Afghanistan – twenty years and billions of dollars invested for what? Some roads paved and some schools built. The Taliban controls Afghanistan today, just as they did when the US invaded.
Bush also greased the wheels for the financial crash of 2008, used the unitary executive theory to consolidate power in the presidency, threatening the balance of our tripartite government, and cultivated the political environment that made Trump possible. Yeah, Bush was worse than Trump, and lands at third on my all-time worst presidents list.
2. Andrew Johnson (1865-1869)
The 17th president, Andrew Johnson, was the first president ever impeached – but he makes the worst president lists, almost invariably, for botching Reconstruction. Johnson assumed the presidency after Lincoln’s assassination. Then, Johnson, a Southerner, allowed the secessionist Southern states to recreate their own governments before rejoining the Union (rather than have the federal government create the new states’ governments).
As a result, the southern states passed Black Codes that often deprived black citizens of their civil liberties. The southern states, in many cases, also reinstated leaders who had initiated succession in the first place. Johnson’s hands off approach led to the creation of a lasting legacy of racism and inequality in the US South.
1. James Buchanan (1857-1861)
The president who typically gets the most blame for America’s most existential crisis, the Civil War, is James Buchanan. So, typically, James Buchanan tops the lists of worst US presidents ever. Buchanan tops my list, too. Buchanan, like others on this list, is best remembered not for what he did do, but for what he did not do.
Buchanan despised slavery, calling the institution a “faith-defying evil,” yet he did nothing to stop the spread of slavery. Instead, Buchanan cited the Constitution, which he believed deprived the president of authority to act. At risk of oversimplifying the matter: Buchanan failed to prevent the Civil War and is therefore the worst president in US history.
Harrison Kass is the Senior Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, Harrison joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison holds a BA from Lake Forest College, a JD from the University of Oregon, and an MA from New York University. Harrison lives in Oregon and listens to Dokken.