As I mentioned in my recent Abraham Lincoln post, I was eventually going to get to the reason why I consider Abraham Lincoln the best president ever. Before I can do that, I wanted to rank the presidents, something I had though I had done before. Unfortunately, if I wrote that piece before, I can’t find it now, so I had to start mostly from scratch. However, I’m going to break my rankings into four different parts. Since we have had 44 men* serve as President of the United States, I’m going to break it mostly into fourths.
*This is including Donald J. Trump, who is #45 because Grover Cleveland is counted twice because he served two non-consecutive terms.
This entry will include the 11 “worst” presidents, as well as the three presidents that I grade as incomplete. I’ll try to highlight a little of the reason why each president is in the quadrant they are, but I’m not going to try and rank the presidents in each group until we get to the last handful or so. Unless a president did something truly egregious, it’s going to be fairly hard to split hairs and say that Warren Harding is worse than John Tyler and vice versa. The only ranking is of the individual quadrants and the top three presidents at the end. Without further ado, let’s talk briefly about three presidents currently grading out at incomplete:
William H. Harrison – Served in 1841 for about 30 days after famously contracting pneumonia while nor wearing a coat during his inaugural speech. Historians tend to rank him in the high 30s, so if you are one of the presidents below him on those types of lists, you know that you really were a terrible president.The man that succeeded him – John Tyler – is one of those presidents.
James A. Garfield – Served in 1881 until he died from blood poisoning after being shot by Charles Guiteau. Was only actually president for about 4 months, though he did have Robert Todd Lincoln around as Secretary of War. The man that succeeded Garfield after the assassination – Chester A. Arthur – will also be making an appearance later in this post.
Donald J. Trump – #45 has officially been president for 27 days as I write this, and if the remainder of his presidency is anywhere near as chaotic as the beginning has been, he’ll probably end up on the lower end of future presidential rankings. Maybe he can figure it all out and become better, but that remains to be seen.
Now the bottom tier of presidents (11 total in this group):
Before we get started with these losers, it’s interesting to note that seven of the men below served within 20 years of the Civil War on either side. Some of these folks instituted policies that accelerated the approach of the Civil War, while others caused the after affects of the War to linger much longer than they needed to. On the other hand, some of the better presidents that we’ll talk about in subsequent posts seemed to be better at help the country out of war.
James Buchanan (1857-1861) – Buchanan is considered by most to be the worst president in history, and that is not without reason. He may have influenced the Dred Scott decision, keeping slavery alive in the South through the courts, which won him no friends in the north despite being from Pennsylvania. He tried to force a fraudulent Kansas constitution that would have admitted the territory as a slave state. He sent federal troops to Utah Territory to deal with pesky Mormon terrorists. Though the election of Lincoln in 1860 was the final straw in South Carolina’s secession and the Civil War, Buchanan’s weak leadership and support of slavery leading up to the election surely contributed to the belligerent feelings between North and South.
Andrew Johnson (1865-1869) – Became president after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and pretty much ruined any chance that the country would recover quickly from the Civil War. He served what would have been the remainder of Lincoln’s second term and survived an impeachment attempt that came about when he continued to try to fire Secretary of War Edwin Stanton after Congress had passed a law restricting his ability to do so. He beat impeachment by one vote in the Senate, and returned to Tennessee a bitter man.
Franklin Pierce (1853-1857) – Another Northern president that did nothing to stop the spread of slavery, Pierce was the 14th president and viewed the abolitionist movement as a threat to the United States. His biggest error was his signature of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, undoing the Compromise of 1850 and angering abolitionists. Pro-slavery settlers flooded into the Kansas Territory, leading to Bleeding Kansas. Northern Democrats abandoned Pierce in the election of 1856 and he returned to New Hampshire and died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1869.
Warren G. Harding (1921-1923) – The 29th president was a fairly popular president when he died unexpectedly in 1923, but the exposure of numerous scandals after his death have had a major impact on his legacy. Teapot Dome was a scandal involving oil leases in Wyoming, with the Secretary of the Interior accepting bribes from oil companies to extract oil. The Teapot Dome was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to Harding’s scandals, unfortunately, and it was later revealed that many of the insiders close to the president had used their position and influence to enrich themselves… maybe President Trump is modeling his presidency after Harding and isn’t telling anyone.
John Tyler (1841-1845) – A bit of a constitutional crisis met Tyler when he took over after the death of William Henry Harrison. You see, no president had ever died in office and the issue of presidential succession wasn’t really addressed (though it was later clarified by the 25th Amendment). Nevertheless, Tyler hit the ground running and immediately became a horrible president, turning against his party’s leadership and failing to get much accomplished. He wanted to continue the idea of Manifest Destiny and add territory, seeking to annex Texas to grow the nation, something that came to fruition under his successor James K. Polk. An overall forgettable presidency by an Accidental President.
Millard Fillmore (1850-1853) – Fillmore was also an accidental president in a way, ascending to the position upon the death of Zachary Taylor in 1850. He was the last Whig to be president, and failed to be nominated again by that party in 1852. Didn’t really have any huge conflicts, but didn’t really do much to set himself apart from some of the other presidents of his era.
Herbert Hoover (1929-1933) – The presidential legacy of Herbert Hoover was defined by the Great Depression. He tried super hard to fix things, even doing some of the same things (public works projects) the later worked for FDR, but he also made some bad decisions that did not help the situation. Worldwide economic crises do not help a president be successful, and Hoover was most likely just in the wrong place and the wrong time. Opposing Prohibition didn’t help either.
Chester A. Arthur (1881-1885) – Another president that kind of just fell into the role after the death of his predecessor – in this case, after the assassination of James Garfield – Arthur didn’t really do much to set himself apart from his other contemporaries. When you are best known for reforming civil service, you really didn’t do much else. Taking over for an assassinated president must be hard, though the next two to do so actually did really well, so it’s really a 50/50 proposition in that regard.
Martin Van Buren (1837-1841) – A capable senior administration official during the presidency of his predecessor Andrew Jackson, Van Buren was undone by the Panic of 1837 early in his presidency and failed to recover and compete with the surging Whig Party. He is better remembered for his service to the Democratic Party and not much that he actually did as president.
Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881) – The election of Hayes was contentious enough, needing Congress to step in after the popular vote had some discrepancies. This didn’t make it easy for Hayes to govern, as he had to overcome the stigma of not being popularly elected and all that, and he didn’t really do much to make a name for himself. He restored some lustre back to the presidency after some failures coming our of the Civil War, and completed some minor civil service reform, but not much else.
Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893) – The last of this batch of presidents, and right in the middle of a bunch of meh presidents is Benjamin Harrison. Do you know what he did? Could you tell him apart from Hayes? I can’t. But he passed an aggressive tariff, which led to increased spending, leading to the defeat of the Republicans during the midterm elections in 1890. The power of his party eroded, he lost reelection in 1892. Again, he didn’t really do bad things, but he didn’t really do anything exceptionally well either.
The presidents on this list were all one-term (or less) presidents, but being re-elected does not always indicate that a president was good or bad. However, as we’ll see in future posts in this series, two terms does not always mean that a president was good or bad.
Until next time…