In 2018, Republicans rail at Barack Obama and Democrats refuse to call Donald Trump “their president,” but many of the worst presidents in American history have been largely forgotten.
A recent YouGov survey found most Americans ranked Trump the worst president (40 percent), followed by Obama (27 percent). Perhaps unsurprisingly, 71 percent of Democrats said Trump was the worst (6 percent of Republicans agreed). Similarly, 57 percent of Republicans chose Obama as the worst president (2 percent of Democrats agreed).
This myopia proved astonishing because even the infamous Richard Nixon paled in comparison to Trump and Obama. Ironically, more Republicans (7 percent) chose Nixon as the worst president than Democrats (6 percent). Tragically, no president before Richard Nixon (1969-1974) received enough downvotes to be mentioned in the results.
While today’s Democrats and Republicans are well-acquainted with the scandals of Trump and Obama respectively, they may know less about James Buchanan or Franklin Pierce. Trump and Obama are arguably too fresh for historians to develop an accurate view of their presidencies, but many lesser-known presidents (and one or two revered presidents) deserve to go down in infamy.
Without further ado, here are the 8 worst presidents before Nixon, from least to most horrible.
8. John Tyler (1841-1845).
Not many Americans remember John Tyler, but he deserves a good deal of infamy. He was the first president to serve after the death of his predecessor, and he was also the first president to see his veto overridden by Congress.
He argued that the president rather than Congress should set policy, and he fought tooth and nail against a leader of his own party, Kentucky Senator Henry Clay. One by one, his cabinet resigned in 1841 after he vetoed a national banking bill. Congressmen attempted to impeach him in 1842, but the effort failed.
After his presidency, Tyler voted for secession twice and served in the Confederate Congress. If Abraham Lincoln was correct in saying that the Confederacy was a rebellion against the Constitution, then Tyler went from being president of the United States to instigating and serving a rebellion against the very Constitution he swore to protect.
To his credit, Tyler did sign the bill to annex the Republic of Texas, and he signed many important treaties — one with Britain and one with China.
7. Andrew Johnson (1865-1869).
Andrew Johnson became president when Abraham Lincoln died in 1865. Historians widely consider him one of the worst presidents in U.S. history because he opposed the Fourteenth Amendment and supported Southern attempts to solidify Black Codes to keep blacks in a kind of bondage.
Johnson implemented a pattern of reconciling Southern states back into the Union that allowed the formerly seceded states to hold conventions and elections to re-form their civil governments. Southern states returned many old leaders and passed Black Codes, so Republicans in Congress attempted to reverse these actions by law.
Johnson vetoed Congress’s bills, but the Republicans overrode him. Similarly, they passed and codified the Fourteenth Amendment, giving citizenship and civil rights to former slaves, despite Johnson’s opposition. Congress attempted to prevent Johnson from firing his Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, but he persisted. This led both houses to vote for his impeachment, and he only escaped impeachment in the Senate by one vote.
To his credit, Democratic Johnson remained in the U.S. Senate after his home state — Tennessee — seceded from the Union. He opposed secession, and joined Abraham Lincoln to run on a united ticket in 1864.
6. Herbert Hoover (1929-1933).
An engineer by training, Herbert Hoover served under Woodrow Wilson as director of the U.S. Food Administration during World War I as part of Wilson’s “War Socialism.” A Republican, he succeeded President Calvin Coolidge, who had worked to dismantle Wilson’s expansion of government, and began the long, inglorious tradition of Republicans doing what Democrats are known for — expanding the government.
Blamed, partially correctly, for starting the Great Depression, he responded to the economic downturn with the same kind of policies that Franklin Delano Roosevelt would use to extend the Depression further. Ironically, Roosevelt ran on a platform of cutting the size and scope of government, defeating Hoover, and then went on to do exactly what Hoover had done, only ten times bigger.
Most Americans may not know of Hoover, but they know of the Hoover Dam, a public works project Hoover started in order to combat the Depression. Hoover also approved the Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930, which also solidified the Depression by tanking foreign trade.
To make matters worse, Hoover supported Prohibition — the nation-wide ban on alcohol — which had finally fallen out of favor by 1932.
Unfortunately, Hoover enabled the media and historians to blame Republicans for the Great Depression, and to claim Democrats eventually overcame it. Hoover thus besmirched the legacy of Calvin Coolidge, and took the fall for Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He unwittingly enabled the New Deal, which he later went on to criticize.
5. Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969).
Lyndon Johnson expanded the size and scope of the federal government through his “Great Society” programs, including public broadcasting, Medicare, Medicaid, education funding, urban and rural development, and the “War on Poverty.”
Entitlement programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, while vital for many Americans, take up the lion’s share of federal funding — even though they are not considered part of the discretionary budget. These programs are a fundamental reason why America’s debt is so large.
While Johnson signed civil rights bills to ban racial discrimination and secure voting rights for African Americans, he continued the FBI’s wiretapping of Martin Luther King, Jr. LBJ even authorized the tapping of phone conversations of Vietnamese friends of an associate of Richard Nixon, the Republican presidential candidate in 1960 and 1968.
Johnson’s continuation of the big government policies of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt helped to entrench the massive bureaucratic state America still has today.
4. Franklin Pierce (1853-1857).
Franklin Pierce exacerbated the tensions between north and south leading up to the Civil War. He championed and signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which nullified the Missouri Compromise, a key agreement that many in the 1850s considered to be on par with the Constitution as important for keeping the country together. The Northwest Ordinance, a law passed before and after the Constitution, outlawed slavery in the territories, but the 1850s saw Southerners advocate for the expansion of slavery into all territories.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act enshrined the principle of “popular sovereignty,” that states above the Missouri Compromise line could enter the Union as slave states if a majority of free people voted to allow slavery. Future president Abraham Lincoln launched his political career decrying this principle, as it made a mockery of democracy by claiming that slavery could be upheld by popular vote — when slaves were not allowed to vote.
Pierce’s support for the Kansas-Nebraska Act led to a miniature civil war in Kansas known as “Bleeding Kansas,” as pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions fought for dominance. Pierce also enforced the Fugitive Slave Act, which mandated northerners return escaped slaves down to the South.
In his later life, Pierce became infamous for criticizing Lincoln, and he advocated peace at all costs. While he was rumored to be working with the Confederacy, there is no evidence he actually did so. Even so, he bears a good deal of the blame for the Civil War.
3. Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1932-1945).
Franklin Delano Roosevelt is fondly remembered by many historians, but his economic policies did not end the Great Depression, and indeed arguably extended it. FDR raised taxes — in 1932 the top federal income tax rate was 25 percent, by 1945 it was 94 percent — and created a vast bureaucratic state under the alphabet soup administrative agencies of the New Deal.
Tragically, FDR used his big government programs to effectively distribute handouts to states he needed to win in national elections. Partially thanks to this strategy, he secured four terms as president, becoming the only president in U.S. history to serve more than two terms.
Roosevelt famously had affairs, cheating on his wife with her social secretary shortly after she was hired. He also opened diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union in 1933 (well before World War II), despite Josef Stalin’s oppression at the time. During World War II, FDR ran internment camps, imprisoning Japanese Americans due to suspicion they might fight against the United States.
Lastly, FDR gave a speech in January 1944 that redefined the idea of rights. His “economic bill of rights” entitled people to employment, food, clothing, leisure, housing, medical care, social security, and education. These “rights” implied the government’s responsibility to supply someone with worldly goods, as opposed to the founders’ conception where rights implied a limited government unable to interfere with individual liberty.
Roosevelt does receive credit for delivering “Fireside chats” that gave Americans hope during the Great Depression, and he does receive credit for leading the country during World War II (although Japanese internment is a tremendous black mark on his record). Furthermore, his force and longevity demonstrated that a disabled politician could lead America from his wheelchair. For these reasons, FDR is not the worst of American presidents, but he certainly came close.
2. James Buchanan (1857-1861).
Historians often rank James Buchanan as one of the all-time worst presidents in history, as his actions and inactions helped inspire the Civil War shortly after he left office. Buchanan not only endorsed the disastrous and racist Dred Scott v. Sandford Supreme Court ruling in 1857, but he actually lobbied the Court for it.
1. Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921).
Woodrow Wilson should go down in infamy as the founder of Progressivism. He pushed Congress to establish a federal income tax, the federal reserve, and many regulations — even before World War I. He staffed his government with Southern Democrats who implemented racial segregation. He even screened the racist pro-KKK film “The Birth of a Nation” (1915).
During and after World War I, Wilson’s policies only got worse. He entered World War I to make “the world safe for democracy,” and launched a program of domestic “reforms” known as “War Socialism.” His War Industries Board effectively nationalized food and fuel production (food production being overseen by Herbert Hoover). He raised income taxes, initiated a draft, and suppressed anti-draft activists. Oh, and he established the first Western propaganda office.
While the disgusting overreach of “War Socialism” was largely corrected by Presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, Wilson’s foreign policy aims created the longstanding maelstrom of U.S. interventionism. Wilson also spearheaded the League of Nations, the first international body that inspired the United Nations.
Finally, following a serious stroke in October 1919, Wilson was partially paralyzed and confined to bed for several weeks. His wife and an aide allegedly helped a journalist construct a false account of an interview with him.
Barack Obama had his scandals — “Fast & Furious,” IRS targeting, Benghazi, surveillance on Trump during the 2016 election — and even in his first two years, Trump has faced enormous controversy. Even so, Americans should think about these eight horrible presidents before saying Trump or Obama is the worst.