Rating presidential performances is an ongoing obsession. The rating of a president continues, in perpetuity, long after the term ends, in the form of presidential rankings. Dominating the rankings discussion are two simple questions: Who were the best U.S. presidents? And who were the worst?
Today, we will answer that second question. Here are my five worst U.S. presidents.
5 Worst Presidents in U.S. History
5. Franklin Pierce (1853-1857)
Franklin Pierce, the 14th US president, deserves a touch of slack. His last surviving son (of three) was killed in a train accident shortly before Pierce’s inauguration. Pierce was still in mourning, and reportedly detached from the moment he entered office. That said, the U.S. presidency is a position of such consequence that occupants really deserve no excuse.
Personal suffering aside, Pierce was an ineffective president. Pierce viewed the abolitionist movement as an existential threat to the United States. Accordingly, he alienated anti-slavery groups, especially with the signing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Fugitive Slave Act. In sum, Pierce helped stoke the fires that would lead to the USA’s ultimate conflagration: the Civil War.
4. Herbert Hoover (1929-1933)
Herbert Hoover, the 31st president, was an obsessive micromanager and a poor communicator – a bad combination. While Hoover is noted as a brilliant bureaucrat who helped save Europe from hunger not just once but twice, his austerity tactics were ill-suited to jump start the U.S. economy during the Great Depression. Shantytowns, which became commonplace during the Depression, came to be known derisively as “Hoovervilles.” Granted, the Great Depression would have destroyed many presidential administrations – but it did destroy Hoover’s. Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was elected to replace the stubborn conservative, quickly enacted the New Deal, which won FDR adoration – and further cemented Hoover’s legacy as a dud.
3. George W. Bush (2001-2009)
George W. Bush, the 43rd president, doesn’t often make lists of the worst presidents. Accordingly, he is my most controversial choice; Bush is often ranked in the bottom quartile, and while he left office with a terrible approval rating, he typically escapes the notoriety of being labeled as The Worst.
But the Bush administration was a disaster. His primary failure was launching the Iraq War under the false pretext of Saddam Hussein having weapons of mass destruction and links to al Qaeda. Saddam had neither one nor the other. Bush’s real objective was to topple the Hussein regime and install a democracy, which Bush hoped would be the first of many in the MENA region. Of course, that didn’t happen. The result was a sustained conflict, thousands of Americans killed, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed, and a power vacuum that gave rise to ISIS. This mess came with no real strategic benefit to the United States.
To top things off, Bush launched America’s longest war ever (Afghanistan), greased the skids for the financial crash of 2007-2008, and used the unitary executive theory to consolidate power in the presidency in a way that threatened the balance of our tripartite government. Oh, and Bush cultivated the political environment that made Donald Trump possible.
2. Andrew Johnson (1865-1869)
Andrew Johnson, the 17th president, is best remembered for being the first president ever impeached – and for botching Reconstruction. Johnson assumed the presidency after assassination of his boss, President Abraham Lincoln. A Southerner, Johnson allowed the seceded Southern states to remake their own governments internally and then rejoin the Union. The result was the reinstatement of many of the leaders who had prompted secession in the first place, and the passing of Black Codes, which deprived African Americans of their civil liberties. Johnson also opposed the Fourteenth Amendment, which aimed to give citizenship to former slaves. Johnson’s opposition to federally recognizing the rights of African Americans left a harmful and lasting legacy.
1. James Buchanan (1857-1861)
James Buchanan, the 15th US president, is largely blamed for allowing the Civil War to ripen. While Buchanan rated slavery as a faith-defying evil, he did nothing to stop the spread of slavery. And as a Confederate bloc slowly formed around Buchanan, he also did nothing. Instead, Buchanan cited the Constitution, saying that the president had no authority to act.
At risk of oversimplifying things, Buchanan failed to prevent the Civil War, and the Civil War was the greatest existential crisis in U.S. history. James Buchanan is therefore the worst president in U.S. history.
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.