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Who Was the Worst U.S. President Ever?

Donald Trump
Donald Trump. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Who Was the Worst U.S. President of all-time? Let the debate begin: Who was the worst US president ever?

The question is oft-debated but never settled. Determining precisely who was the worst (or best) president is roughly impossible. And so, the debate continues.

How Do You Make Such a Choice?

Part of the problem is that external events so deeply influence a presidency. Different presidents deal with different times and different issues, so it isn’t easy to assess them all by the same universal standard.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt is remembered fondly as one of the greatest U.S. presidents – largely for his stewardship through World War II.

But did FDR perform superlatively during World War II – or did he just do what any president would have done?

Was he just in the right place at the right time to be great? Maybe Millard Fillmore would have aced World War II. And maybe FDR would have crumbled under the problems confronting Franklin Pierce.

For the record, I think FDR was great, a unique talent who guided the U.S. through the Depression and World War II.

But the point stands. Evaluating different people who served at different times by one standard is challenging.

The Public Perception Challenge

Another part of the problem, with evaluating presidents, is the distortion of public perception.

John F. Kennedy is remembered as a great president. But he was beatified the moment he was assassinated. He was larger in death than in life – a phenomenon that has enhanced the statures of Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, James Dean, Jimmy Hendrix and so on.

What I’m getting at is that JFK didn’t accomplish that much. The result of beatification is often an objective overrating.

Similarly, public perception can be cut the other way.

JFK’s replacement, Lyndon B. Johnson, was not popular in his time. He was a second fiddle, after all – who escalated the Vietnam War.

But LBJ’s accomplishments, especially his guidance of the Civil Rights Act, lend to a greater presidential term than most.

Who War Truly the Worst U.S. President Ever?

All pitfalls considered, let’s assign someone The Worst President Ever. My vote: James Buchanan.

James Buchanan is hardly a controversial or adventurous choice. He often tops the list of worst US presidents – a distinction that may have surprised Buchanan himself; the day before Buchanan died, he said that “history will vindicate my memory.”

Buchanan was unpopular during his lifetime – but felt that future generations would come to appreciate his adherence to the Constitution. His foresight was mistaken, of course. For one hundred and sixty years, historians have been deriding Buchanan’s efforts – regularly labeling him the worst of all 46 US presidents.

So, what did Buchanan do to earn such a distinction?

His primary offense: failing to challenge the Southern states who had threatened to succeed from the Union. Buchanan maintained that the Constitution did not grant him the power to intervene, so instead, he sat “on his hands.”

Biographer Jean Baker is scathing in her criticism of Buchanan: “In fact Buchanan’s failing during the crisis over the Union was not inactivity, but rather his partiality for the South, a favoritism that bordered on disloyalty in an officer pledged to defend all the United States…In hi betrayal of the national trust, Buchanan came closer to committing treason than any other president in American history.”

Baker’s view is closer to the median. But, as always, various interpretations of Buchanan’s presidency have been offered.

Biographer Philip Klein is more forgiving, citing the remarkable nature of the times in which Buchanan governed as a qualifier in his underperformance. “Buchanan assumed leadership … when an unprecedented wave of angry passion was sweeping over the nation. That he held the hostile sections in check during these revolutionary times was in itself a remarkable achievement.”

Angry passions notwithstanding, Buchanan’s inaction led directly to the Civil War. That fact alone places him at, or very near, the top of any list ranking The Worst President Ever.

Harrison Kass is the Senior Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he 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. He lives in Oregon and listens to Dokken.

Written By

Harrison Kass is a Senior Defense Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison has degrees from Lake Forest College, the University of Oregon School of Law, and New York University’s Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. He lives in Oregon and regularly listens to Dokken.

10 Comments

10 Comments

  1. Rick

    December 5, 2022 at 6:59 pm

    Trump wins hands down. Now he’s a loser facing indictment. Karma.

  2. phil stacy

    December 5, 2022 at 8:43 pm

    Who is the worst online pundit?

  3. CRS, DrPH

    December 6, 2022 at 2:32 am

    I’ll start….Pres. Donald J. Trump.

  4. BillyA

    December 6, 2022 at 2:54 am

    LBJ is remembered for legislative accomplishments, like civil rights legislation as well and the great society, but also his massive escalation of the war in Vietnam. While the first was definitely a positive the others forced the US to spend Billions of dollars that caused the US to abandon the gold standard and the US dollar to be fiat currency, leading to the malaise and massive inflation of the 1970’s causing women to be forced into the workforce while paying them to have children out of wedlock. This is more than a cultural issue.

  5. Tony K

    December 6, 2022 at 7:47 am

    Nice assessment Mr.Kass, especially when mentioning treason as a primary factor I’d say that President Polk deserves the eternal shame, research his tenure and any true patriot will know why he’s the only President not buried with presidential honors.

  6. Steve Williams

    December 6, 2022 at 8:41 am

    While James Buchanan held this title for over 150 years he lost bigly to the all time worst president iñ history, in a landslide, Donald J. Trump…

  7. bill

    December 6, 2022 at 4:12 pm

    Hands down JOE BIDUM !!!!!!

  8. Roger Bacon

    December 6, 2022 at 4:30 pm

    Biden, Carter, Obama did more to destroy this country than any other president — and I’m including the President of the Confederacy.

    Best presidents: Trump, Reagan, and all of the Founding Fathers.

  9. Rob Barto

    December 7, 2022 at 6:48 am

    Trump was the worst and FDR was the best.

  10. DR

    January 11, 2023 at 6:55 pm

    trump hands down. He encouraged and started an insurrection. His denial of his election lost. Immature, childish, lying “so called” president. You could NOT rely on nothing he said…it was all lies. The downfall is that our children and grandchildren will be affected by his failure to act and react to crisis. The economy was very good when he took over the presidency. In four years, he damaged the economy and we are heading for a huge recession. Biden inherited a SWAMP. That swamp became a cess pool…a man can do so much. In regard to the best president… everyone had their forte and their weakness. But trump…wow…unbelievable.

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