The United States is so divided that nearly half the country will tell you that President Joe Biden is doing a fine job, while the other half will be quick to say that he is hands down the worst president ever. Yet, the same is essentially true of former Presidents Donald Trump, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton.
None of those men should be on the list of “worst presidents” – nor should George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, or Gerald Ford. Likewise, the administration of the late Richard Nixon may have been filled with scandal, but history still likely won’t judge him as one of the worst.
And that’s because these five men were truly bad at the job.
Number Five: Warren G. Harding
Long before Nixon, Warren G. Harding, who served as the 29th president of the United States from March 4, 1921, to August 2, 1923, became known primarily for the scandals in the White House.
But that was actually only after his untimely death.
In fact, Harding was actually one of the most popular sitting presidents during his administration, and he was deeply mourned – not only in the United States but around the world. However, his failings were in appointing a slew of corrupt officials, prompting the Teapot Dome bribery scandal – which resulted in the first time a Cabinet secretary was sent to prison. Most historians also agree that he was neither a caretaker nor a leader and avoided issues whenever possible. Harding clearly didn’t know where to take the nation, and even he had no idea what his slogan “return to normalcy” really meant!
Number Four: William Henry Harrison
A career military officer before becoming a politician, William Henry Harrison is on the list of the worst because he died just 31 days after his inauguration – making his presidency the shortest in the history of the nation. He caught a chill after giving a record two-hour-long speech in freezing weather during his inauguration ceremony, which he gave without wearing a coat to show his toughness. Illness set in, and he spent much of his presidency in bed.
Though beyond his control, his death caused a brief constitutional crisis as Presidential succession wasn’t fully defined in the U.S. Constitution.
Number Three: Franklin Pierce
It could be argued that Franklin Pierce was simply the wrong guy at the wrong time to lead the nation. He followed Millard Fillmore – a true caretaker president who only ascended the office after the death of Zachary Taylor – and while the little-known Pierce sought to resolve the great divide in the nation over the issue of slavery, his decisions led the country closer to the Civil War.
Number Two: Andrew Johnson
Historians largely view Andrew Johnson as the worst possible person to have served as president at the end of the American Civil War – but he only ended up in the position following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Today history remembers him as a rigid, dictatorial racist who was unable to compromise or accept any political reality that was at odds with his ideas.
Chosen by Lincoln to be a unifying running mate, Johnson was unable to work with Republicans and moderates after the Civil War resulted in united opposition against him. He is remembered for opposing the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill, the Civil Rights Act of 1866, and even the Fourteenth Amendment.
Johnston arguably did more to extend the period of national strife than he did to heal the wounds of the Civil War. His policies during Reconstruction were controversial and resulted in his impeachment in 1868. He only remained in office by one vote in a Senate trial.
Number One: James Buchanan
Given all of Andrew Johnson’s problems, it would seem hard to find a worse president – yet, James Buchanan delivered.
Buchanan refused to challenge the spread of slavery or the growing bloc of states that could join the Confederacy. Though he took a stiffer anti-Confederate position in his final months in office, his initial refusal to confront seceded states with military force led directly to the American Civil War, the bloodiest conflict in our nation’s history. For that reason, Buchanan certainly earned the distinction of the worst president this country has ever seen.
Author Experience and Expertise
A Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,200 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, politics, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.