Five Worst United States Presidents

Oddly, choosing the five worst United States Presidents was fairly easy. There been 45 presidents but only a handful of bad ones stand out.

Interestingly, the worst president in American history does not appear on our little list. If I had to pick the worst chief executive in our history it would be Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

In fact, Davis probably did more to end slavery than any other American with his incompetent leadership of the Confederacy. Therefore, incompetent leadership is sometimes good.

This list only covers people who served as President of the United States. Here are my choices for five worst presidents of the United States.

1. James Buchanan (D-Pennsylvania) 1857-1861

On paper, Buchanan looked like a great president, he had been a US Senator, a Congressman, Secretary of State, and Minister (ambassador) to the United Kingdom. However, in office, Buchanan’s incompetence probably caused the Civil War.

Buchanan received the Democratic presidential nomination for two reasons. He was offensive to no party faction, and he was totally loyal to the Southern Slave Power.

As president, Buchanan antagonized almost everybody in the North with his efforts to expand slavery. For instance, Buchanan worsened the violence in Bleeding Kansas by recognizing the illegal Lecompton Constitution which would have brought that territory into the Union as a slave state.

Disgustingly, Buchanan refused to use the military against Slave Power thugs in Kansas. However, he sent a large portion of the army to Utah to remove governor Brigham Young in the so-called Mormon or Utah War.

The Mormons had no military power and quickly collapsed. Yet Buchanan considered them a danger to the United States. Well-armed Southern Slave owners were a different matter.

In addition, when radical abolitionist John Brown attacked the US Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, in October 1859, in a crude effort to spark a slave insurrection, Buchanan sent in the Marines. Thus, Buchanan was willing to use overwhelming military force to protect slavery.

The President sat by as several states succeeded, formed an illegal Confederate government, seized federal property and weapons paid for by taxpayers, and organized an army. Buchanan’s inaction, allowed the formation of the Confederacy, and the organization of an effective Confederate army.

Moreover, Buchanan refused to prepare the Union for war. He refused to deploy the Regular Army, order the navy to blockade Southern ports, occupy strategic points in the South, call for volunteers, or call up state militias. Thus, the Union had no military forces to use against the would-be rebels.

Aggressive action by Buchanan could have deterred succession and convinced Southern offices like Robert E. Lee, Joseph E. Johnson, and Albert Sydney Johnson to stay with the Union. Instead, when President Abraham Lincoln (R-Illinois) entered office in March 1861 he faced a well organized Confederacy with a powerful army.

Finally, Buchanan was completely out of touch with the national sentiment. In one of his final messages to Congress, Buchanan recommended the United States pursue the annexation of Cuba as to add several new slave states to the Union. However, in November, 1860 the overwhelmingly elected a Congress and President from the anti-slavery Republican Party.

Interesting Facts about James Buchanan

  • A lifelong bachelor who never married, Buchanan was probably the only open gay president (so far).
  • In March 1860, Buchanan was investigated for impeachable offenses by the US House of Representatives.
  • Buchanan nearly went to war with Paraguay because that nation’s forces  fired on the USS Water Witch, an American warship.
  • Buchanan did one good thing, he kept his promise to serve just one term.

2. Woodrow Wilson (D-New Jersey) 1913-1921

Bizarrely, Woodrow Wilson is considered a great president by many. However, the historical reality tells a different story. Wilson, is a tragic figure because he could have been a good president had he kept his promise to stay out of World War I.

Wilson was a political amateur and outsider who had served briefly in one elected office, Governor of New Jersey. In fact, Wilson was a failed college administrator; he had been fired as President of Princeton after offending the alumni.

Yet, Wilson was attractive to the Democratic Party for three reasons. First, Wilson looked sort of like a Progressive in a country that was in an anti-establishment mood. Second, Wilson had no visible connection to any of the unpopular and corrupt political machines that ran the Democratic Party.

Third, Wilson was a total racist and a strong supporter of Jim Crow and Segregation. Thus, Wilson was completely acceptable to all Democratic factions.

Wilson’s first term was very successful, he avoided American involvement in World War I, laid the groundwork for the US Federal Reserve, and saw the enactment of two Constitutional Amendments. However, in his second term Wilson displayed a growing level of ineptitude, arrogant, and delusional behavior.

In 1917, there was little reason for America to enter World War I. Wilson’s pretext for entering the conflict was German submarine attacks on American shipping. However, Wilson made effort to use America’s Navy to protect shipping thus encouraging more German attacks.

He could have organized convoys of neutral merchant ships protected by US warships. Instead, Wilson let the ships sail the Atlantic, and become targets for German torpedoes.

Another Wilson pretext for war, an imaginary German-Mexican alliance was every more preposterous. The US Army was occupying parts of Mexico, a country incapable of defending its own borders let alone threatening the United States.

Strangely, Wilson removed US troops from Mexico and shipped them to Europe. Furthermore, the US Navy could have easily sunk any German invasion force on long before it reached Mexican soil.

Wilson, however, refused to take even minimal action to protect American shipping or secure Mexico from German invasion. Yet, in 1917 Wilson asked for a declaration of war on Germany and Austria, and began organizing a massive army to send to Europe.

Even though no American interests were at stake in the war. In 1917, there was no German threat to the United States. The German Fleet was bottled up in the Baltic Sea and Germany could not even invade Britain. Sadly, Wilson never explained how the Germans could threaten America if they could not reach Britain.

Moreover, Wilson’s famous rationale for waging war, “making the world safe for Democracy” was nonsense. America’s allies the British Empire, Russia, France, Italy, and Belgium maintained large colonial empires. Those empires deprived dozens of nations of their independence, and tens millions of people of basic human rights.

Closer to home, Wilson tried to extend Jim Crow to the federal civil service and Washington DC to deprive African Americans of their rights. In addition, Wilson implemented an unconstitutional program of conscription, and imprisoned US citizens for exercising their Constitutional right to criticize his war.

Moreover, during the war Wilson’s administration deliberately spread vicious anti-German bigotry that led at least one lynching. Thus, the President who shipped American boys off to die to “make the world safe for democracy,” had a horrendous human rights record.

Wilson’s entry into World War I, probably prolonged the conflict leading to tens of millions of needless deaths. To explain, Britain and France would have probably signed a peace treaty with Germany and ended the fighting in 1917 if America had not entered war.

Had World War I ended in Spring 1917, the world could have been spared the Russian Revolution, Communism, the Third Reich, Nazism, World War II, and possibly the Cold War. Prolonging the war drove the Russian people to the Bolsheviks and triggered the Russian Revolution leading to 74 years of Communism.

America’s involvement in the war ensured the defeat of the Germany Empire. That led to the inept and unpopular Wiemar Republic which led to the Third Reich and Hitler. Thus, Wilson’s “war to make the world safe for democracy” spawned new tyrannies and laid the ground work for new wars.

Having involved America in a needless war for spurious reasons, Wilson saddled America with an unrealistic foreign policy. Specifically, Wilson promulgated the idealistic 14 Points without consulting British, French, or Italian leaders.

America’s allies ignored the 14 Points making them meaningless propaganda. Yet the world’s people believed the Points to be official. Consequently, the world was set for disappointment and disillusionment when Germany and Austria surrendered in 1918.

The 1919 Versailles Conference which was supposed to create a permanent peace saw Wilson at his worst. Wilson left for the Conference, with no realistic plan. Worse, even though Republicans had just won control of the U.S. Senate which would have to pass any treaty. Wilson brought no Republican representatives to the Conference.

At the conference, the amateur Wilson was easily outfoxed and outwitted by British Prime Minister Lloyd George and French President M. Clemenceau. George and Clemenceau were veteran political operators with decades of experience. Wilson was third-rater who was in far over his head.

George and Clemenceau’s agenda at Versailles was simple; punish Germany to appease their voters back home, and seize as much German, Turkish, and Austrian territory as they could. Both men achieved their goals. Wilson came home with nothing except vague promises to build an international peacekeeping organization called the League of Nations.

Strangely, the League could have worked had Wilson enlisted Republican help in his project. However, he had brought no Republicans to Versailles. Thus the GOP leaders;particularly the powerful US Senator Cabot Lodge (R-Massachusetts), were out to get Wilson and they did.

The mistake became clear when Wilson came home from Versailles and found he had no friends. Wilson had antagonized the Republicans, alienated large segments of the Democratic base; German and Irish Americans in particular, with his childish war time propaganda, offended and insulted African Americans, and driven most of the Progressives away with his war-time bungling.

Like Richard M. Nixon (R-California) and Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Texas) in a later era Wilson believed there was a silent secret majority of the American people that would rally to his side. Despite, the clear evidence of the Republican Congressional victory in 1918, Wilson launched a speaking tour to sell the Treaty of Versailles and the League to the American people.

There was no noticeable wave of support for the treaty but Wilson pressed on. The tour ended in Pueblo, Colorado, of all places, where a stroke felled Wilson.

Wilson, now mentally disabled, remained in the White House until his term ended in March 1921.Unfortunately, Congress in the era before the 25th Amendment had no legal way to remove Wilson.

During his disability, the delusions continued and Wilson apparently believed he could win the Democratic nomination and a third term in 1920. Fortunately, the Democrats had finally had enough of Wilson and nominated James M. Cox (D-Ohio) instead.

The damage, Wilson did was vast. In particular, the American people refused to elect a Democrat to the White House again until the Great Depression in 1932. Moreover, the American people were so distrustful of their leaders and foreign wars they refused to enter World War II until the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941.

Woodrow Wilson Fun Facts

  • Woodrow Wilson was the first American President to travel to Europe in Office and the first chief executive to negotiate directly with foreign leaders.
  • Wilson was the first President to hold a press conference.
  • Wilson was one of just two presidents to marry in office. The other was Grover Cleveland (D-New York).
  • Wilson was so racist he refused to talk to African Americans even when black leaders like WEB Du Bois were offering their political support.

3. James Madison Jr. (R-Virginia) 1809-1817

Like James Buchanan, James Madison brought an impressive resume to the White House and performed miserably. Madison was a Founding Father who his credited with writing the Constitution. In addition, Madison had served as Secretary of State.

However, as President, Madison; like George W. Bush (R-Texas) allowed himself to be deceived and manipulated by a small clique of warmongers and imperialists. The warhawks wanted to attack the British Empire, the world’s greatest military power, and seize Canada and Florida, then in Spanish hands.

By 1812, Madison and the warhawks found a questionable pretext for war in the Royal Navy’s impressment of American seamen. To explain, British warships were stopping American vessels and seizing sailors to serve in the Royal Navy.

The issue was a questionable one because many of the impressed sailors were British subjects, and some of them were deserters from the Royal Navy. However, like weapons of mass destruction; impressment inflamed the passions of the mob.

In June 1812, Congress declared war on Britain over impressment. Incredibly, the British had already ended the practice and signed an agreement with American diplomats to that effect. However, due to poor communications. Madison and Congress did not know they were going to war for no reason.

The resulting War of 1812 was stupid because rarely has a country been less prepared for battle than the United States was in 1812. In fact, America’s coasts and its cities had no effective defense against British attack.

The Regular Army was tiny, the nation’s main fighting force the militias completely unorganized and largely untrained, and the Navy lacked the ships to defend America’s coast. Additionally, the few seasoned militia units, and trained regular troops were on the frontier fighting Indians far from the coasts.

Moreover, the lack of preparation was partially Madison’s fault. In his three and a half years as president Madison had done nothing to prepare the country for war. He did not expand the army, organize or train the militia, fortify ports, expand the navy, move troops to the coast, or ask for help from Britain’s enemy Napoleon. Even though many regarded war with Britain as a certainty.

Consequently, the War of 1812 was a complete catastrophe for America. British troops burned Washington, nearly captured Baltimore, and came close to seizing New Orleans. Not a single inch of Canadian soil was captured, and Florida was still in Spanish hands when the conflict ended.

The only beneficiary of the war was General Andrew Jackson whose armies had defeated the Creek and Cherokee Indians and a British invasion force in the South. Jackson managed to organize, train, and lead an effective army with no help from Madison.

Bizarrely, the one real American victory over the British, the Battle of New Orleans occurred after a Peace treaty the Treaty to Ghent had been signed. Thus, the American deaths in that battle were needless.

Madison involved America in a needless war, it nearly lost. Worse, the United States nearly lost much of its Western territory and control of the strategic Mississippi River to the British in a senseless conflict. Moreover, the United States almost broke up because the New England states threatened to succeed over the war.

The only good thing that came out of Mr. Madison’s War was that America stayed out of conflicts with European powers for over a century. In addition, the United States avoided war with Britain, and the American people learned to ignore the warhawks for a long time.

Some James Madison Tidbits

  • James Madison is known as the “Father of Constitution” because he wrote much of that document.
  • Madison was one of the longest lived founders, he died in 1836 towards the end of Andrew Jackson’s administration.
  • Madison was a Republican. He was the second president who was a member of the Democratic Republican, or Jeffersonian Republican/ Party, Thomas Jefferson founded. However, there is no connection between Madison and Jefferson’s Republican Party and the current Republican Party; which originated in the 1850s

4. Andrew Jackson (D-Tennessee) 1829-1837

No president has entered office in a stronger position than Andy Jackson had in 1829 or blown it so thoroughly.

Entering his first term Old Hickory had a strong popular mandate; vast popularity with the people, a powerful political movement behind him, and a speculator resume. In fact, no president had a better resume than Jackson. He was a national hero, a victorious general, a successful territorial governor, a former U.S. Senator, a former State supreme court justice, and a former Congressman.

Jackson’s style of government, however, was to antagonize everybody around him. As President, Andy feuded with both houses of Congress, his own cabinet, the U.S. Supreme Court, bankers, the Bank of the United States, Native Americans, state governments, and anybody else he could find.

Jackson has the dubious distinction of being the President who did the most damage without going to war. Most presidents are known are known for one destructive policy. Old Hickory authored an entire program of destruction.

Spectacularly, Jackson wrecked the economy and triggered a depression with two policies. First, Jackson deliberately destroyed America’s first central bank; the Bank of the United States, in the Bank War. That left America with no protection or means of dealing with the crisis when the economy collapsed in 1837.

The most destructive of Jackson’s policies was the forced removal of 100,000 Native Americans from the Eastern United States. The removal was undertaken solely to benefit corrupt land speculators. Moreover, removal it was so poorly planned up to 15,000 people died on the Trail of Tears.

Worst of all, Jackson’s removal was unconstitutional. When the U.S. Supreme Court found states had no authority to remove Native Americans, Jackson simply ignored the ruling.

This paved the way for several generations of bad law and official violations of tribal rights. Thus Jackson triggered generations of oppression and Indian  War with one clumsy action.

Jackson implemented several other horrendous policies but two of them stand out. Old Hickory, implemented in the “spoils system” in which competent and experienced federal office holders were fired and replaced with political hacks. This left America with no professional civil servants; or administrative class, for several decades.

Then, in the Nullification Crisis, Jackson nearly turned a spat over a tariff into a Civil War. In 1832 and 1832, South Carolina tried to nullify or refuse the enforce the federal tariffs. Jackson responded by threatening to invade South Carolina and hang tariff opponents. Fortunately, South Carolina backed down, but the crisis shows just how destructive Andy Jackson could be.

Then, in the Nullification Crisis, Jackson nearly turned a spat over a tariff into a Civil War. In 1832 and 1832, South Carolina tried to nullify or refuse the enforce the federal tariffs. Jackson responded by threatening to invade South Carolina and hang tariff opponents. Fortunately, South Carolina backed down, but the crisis shows just how destructive Andy Jackson could be.

Some Strange Facts about Andrew Jackson

  • He was a famous duelist. Legend has it that Jackson fought over 100 duels. However, Jackson reportedly only killed one opponent, Allen McDuffee writes at Medium.
  • Jackson is still our most controversial president. In fact, President Donald J. Trump (R-New York) triggered a minor controversy by hanging a picture of Old Hickory in the White House in 2017, 172 years after Jackson’s death.
  • Jackson effectively founded the Democratic Party. The oldest modern political party in the world.  

5. Herbert Hoover (R-California)

The crisis makes or breaks the president. Franklin D. Roosevelt (D-New York) and Abraham Lincoln (R-Illinois) became great through crisis response. Conversely, Herbert Hoover and James Buchanan’s failure to deal with crises destroyed their reputations.

Hoover’s refusal to use government resources to help the victims of the Great Depression doomed his presidency. Specifically, Hoover refused to consider direct federal aid to Depression victims.

Instead, Herbert relied on private charity to help the unemployed and the hungry. However, the private charities lacked the resources to help all the victims, and became overwhelmed. Yet Hoover refused to bolster their efforts with federal money and resources.  

In addition, Hoover, made the Depression worse by failing to take government actions that could have alleviated some of the cataclysm’s effects. For example, Hoover could have declared a federal bank holiday; like his successor FDR did.

To explain, in a bank holiday, the government forcibly closes financial institutions. A bank holiday could have kept panicked depositors from withdrawing funds which caused financial institutions to collapse.

Moreover, Hoover could have asked Congress for public works projects and cash relief for the unemployed. Two proven remedies for Depression, FDR quickly requested.

Like Buchanan in 1860, Hoover ignored the crisis and pretended nothing had changed. In addition, Hoover took at least action which made the Depression far worse.

In 1930, Hoover signed the notorious Smoot Hawley Act or Tariff Act of 1930 against the advice of most economists. Smoot Hawley increased 900 tariffs by 40% to 48%.

Most economists believe Smoot Hawley made the Depression far worse by sparking a trade war. In fact, international trade fell by 65% which made economic recovery impossible.

Additionally, some historians and economists think Smoot Hawley helped trigger World War II by causing economic collapse in Japan and Germany. That led to military dictatorship in Japan and Hitler in Germany.

Tragically, Hoover’s failure was a matter of principle. Hebert sincerely believed that all forms of government aid were wrong. In addition, Hoover honestly thought tariffs could spur recovery by protecting American industry.

Like Wilson, Hoover did incalculable damage to his party with his bungling. Americans refused to elect another Republican president for 24 years after 1928, until 1952. In addition, there would be no Republican Congress again until 1946 and no long-sitting Republican Congress until the 1990s.

The best thing about Hoover was his gracious behavior as ex-President. Hoover’s quiet and dignified actions, brought peace and calm to American politics during the chaotic years of the Depression and World War II when they were needed most. In particular, Hoover’s refusal to attack FDR; despite that President’s disrespect for his predecessor, kept a lid on potentially destructive political passions.

Plus, Hoover’s post-presidency work behind the scenes helped rebuild the Grand Old Party and lay the groundwork for the modern conservative movement. After World War II, Hoover played a key secret role in the rebuilding of Japan. Yet Hoover, will always be remembered as a failure because of his failed presidency.

Some Herbert Hoover Tidbits

  • Like Donald J. Trump (R-New York), Zachary Taylor (W-Louisiana) and Ulysses S. Grant (R-Illinois), Hoover only ran for and held one political office. However, that political office was the presidency.
  • Hoover was the first president to come from the West Coast, he grew up in Oregon and graduated from Stanford.
  • Hoover spent much of his adult life outside the United States as a mining engineer. In fact, Hoover was the only President, so-far, to live in China. He also lived in London for awhile.
  • Although Hoover never served in the U.S. military he did help American troops in combat and fight in a foreign war. Hoover guided U.S. Marines during the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900. In addition, Hoover organized defenses that helped foreign residents of Tientsin survive the rebellion.
  • Hoover devised the Republican Party’s Southern strategy of appealing to conservative Southern whites with his “Lilly White” policy. However, the policy did not bear fruit until the Civil Rights movement of 1960s.

What we can Learn from Bad Presidents

The great lesson the five worst presidents can teach us is that resumes mean nothing in the White House.

Three, of the terrible presidents I describe above; Buchanan, Madison, and Jackson had great resumes and did poorly. However, Hoover, and Wilson had weak resumes but still managed to make the list.

Consequently, in history the presidency makes the president.

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