A lot has happened since I last sat down and ranked the presidents for Presidents Day 2017. As I write this, the former president was just acquitted in his second impeachment, albeit with seven of his fellow Republicans joining all the Democrats to vote him guilty of inciting the insurrection on the US Capitol of January 6, 2021. Despite their best efforts, the House impeachment managers just couldn’t get it across the goal line, though it’s more a failing on the 43 eyewitnesses to the events of January 6th that had to bend themselves into knots to justify their “not guilty” votes. An old man without his all-powerful Twitter account is still so scary to them that they couldn’t cross him to actually do what was right.
There has been a bit of shuffling among the rankings, though most of it is simply cosmetic at this point. There really isn’t a huge consensus about these rankings anyway; depending on your political leanings, conservative presidents will likely rank higher on your list than mine, and vice versa. And as presidents and their behavior gets further in the past, it’s harder to say that the impact the had isn’t worse or better than more recent presidents.
In keeping with my publishing schedule (#content), I’m going to break the list into thirds. And like I did four years ago I’m going to start at the bottom and work my way up. Now that we have had 45 presidents – though Joe Biden is technically #46, Grover Cleveland had two non-consecutive terms and messed up the counting a bit – this will break down into three nice lists of 15 presidents each. And, unlike last time, I’m going to rank them all, from #42 to #1, and throw in the actual rankings from last time too!
That said, this entry will be the three “incomplete” presidencies, then move on to the 12 worst presidents. We’ll go on from there, so 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.
Joseph R. Biden, Jr. – #46 has officially been president for 25 days as I write this, and he’s been mostly focusing on resolving the immediate issues of his predecessor. Though it’s early, he seems to be on the right path, though if he doesn’t start to coerce the Senate into killing the filibuster, he may end up as a one-term president that failed to get anything major accomplished.
Now the bottom tier of presidents (12 total in this group):
42. Donald J. Trump (2017-2021) (Previous Rank: N/A) – The Trump presidency started with mass protests at airports due to his Muslim ban, and ended with an attack on the US Capitol at his urging that led to his second impeachment. Over four years of chaos, including mishandling a major pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, the only real legislative accomplishment was a large tax cut that primarily benefited the wealthiest people in the country. He also, with the aide of Mitch McConnell in the Senate, appointed more federal judges than any prior one-term president, including three Supreme Court justices. Finally, despite being impeached (but not removed) twice during his presidency, he’s threatening a run in 2024, which would be… less than ideal.
41. Andrew Johnson (1865-1869) (Previous: 40th) – Thanks to Donald Trump, Andrew Johnson will no longer be the worst president ever to a lot of people, though it probably still pretty close to a toss-up between the three worst presidents. Johnson 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.
40. James Buchanan (1857-1861) (Previous: 41st) – In my previous rankings, I had Buchanan rated as the worst, but I’ve moved him up a peg because Andrew Johnson was just a little more terrible. Buchanan 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.
39. Franklin Pierce(1853-1857) (Previous: 39th) – 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.
38. Warren G. Harding (1921-1923) (Previous: 38th) – Perhaps the most corrupt president before Donald Trump, Harding was generally well-regarded and popular when he died unexpectedly in 1923. However, the worst of his scandals were revealed after his death, which has led to his fall down the presidential rankings over the past century. Teapot Dome was perhaps the most famous. It 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 is a great illustration of why there should be a truth commission for the Trump administration to see what exactly we might have missed over the past four years.
37. Millard Fillmore (1850-1853) (Previous: 37th) – Fillmore was the second president to serve that did not win election; he ascended 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.
36. John Tyler (1841-1845) (Previous: 36th) – Tyler was the first “accidental president”, and a constitutional crisis met him 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 – eventually leaving the Whig Party altogether – 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. He might be more famous for having a grandchild recently die, 175 years after the end of his presidency.
35. Herbert Hoover (1929-1933) (Previous: 35th) – Though he eventually went on to do some good things after his presidency, 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.
34. Benjamin Harrison(1889-1893) (Previous: 34th) – A mostly forgettable president – in a string of them – Harrison didn’t have much in the way of accomplishments. 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.
33. Chester A. Arthur (1881-1885) (Previous: 33rd) – 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.
32. Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881) (Previous: 32nd) – 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 luster back to the presidency after some failures coming out of the Civil War, though the corrupt bargain that placed him in office accelerated the end of Reconstruction and led to the Jim Crow South. Not 100% his fault, but not a good legacy either.
31. George W. Bush (2001-2009) (Previous: 29th) – Another close election established “W” in the White House, and he’s the lowest ranked president on my list to serve two terms. Nevertheless, his presidency, and our country, changed on the morning for September 11, 2001. I will always give President Bush credit for the way he handled himself in the immediate aftermath of this tragedy, and the goodwill he earned for his leadership led to his reelection in 2004. However, all was not rosy during his time in the White House, which is why he ends up on this list and not on a subsequent one. Among other things, his justification for the invasion of Iraq based on faulty intelligence and the PATRIOT Act was enough for me to place him on this list and not another.
That concludes the first third. Not much movement around the bottom of the list, as it is particularly hard to split hairs between the ones that really didn’t do all that much. Be sure to check in on Wednesday to see the next 15!
Until next time…