There are many candidates for the title of the worst president ever. Many partisan observers would love to say Joe Biden or Donald Trump, of course. However, taking a longer view, who truly deserves the title?
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.
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.”
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.