The Worst President Ever? Part 1

In his Comment of the Day this morning, history-besotted commenter Steve-O-in NJ writes regarding the question of whether Biden, as the Washington Post ludicrously claimed in an editorial, is a “huge” upgrade over President Trump, “Biden is so far headed for being 46th of 46.”

From a purely academic perspective, having a clear and unequivocal Worst President Ever would be useful for future ranking purposes, just as George Washington has been an invaluable role model against whom all of his successors must be compared. However, the operative words regarding Biden are “is headed.” It would be unfair, not to mention foolish, to grade Biden as the worst of the worst before he has even served half his term. True, there is little reason for optimism, but the President generally regarded as sharing the Top POTUS title with George, Honest Abe, was looking like a national disaster at this point in his first term.

How do we assess which of our leaders was “the worst”? Without objective standards, any ranking is going to be poisoned by bias and partisanship. When I first began studying the Presidency, Jack Kennedy’s house historian and shameless boot-licker and old New Dealer Arthur Schlesinger Jr. was considered the authority on the subject. He essentially ranked all the Democrats he could as “great” or “near great” and saved the low rankings for Republicans. He even rated Woodrow Wilson, a true villain in U.S. history, as “great.”

This was the beginning of my distrust of historians that has only grown since.

This series has to be shorter than the topic requires, so I will aim at providing a solid foundation. First we need to settle on who the contenders for Worst President Ever are. I’ll disqualify some along the way. Here are the possibilities among our first ten Presidents:

James Madison, Fourth President, 1809-1917. Madison establishes the principle that accomplishments before becoming President cannot be considered in ranking his Presidency. He was a poor leader, and he got the U.S. involved in the disastrous War of 1812 when it was completely unprepared and without competent leadership. The war almost bankrupted the government, got 15,000 American killed, and saw Washington and the White House burned and sacked by British forces. Only moral luck saved the U.S. from being re-taken by England. Because the war seemingly ended on a high note—the Battle of New Orleans, which took place after the treaty ending the was was signed but the public didn’t see it that way—the war has gone down in the books as a “victory.” But luck factors into the WPE contest. Madison deserved infamy, but he’s not the worst. DISQUALIFIED

John Tyler, 10th President, 1841-1845. Tyler was the first VP to succeed a dead elected President, and never had a chance to be successful. He had no popular constituency, and was a Democrat in a Whig administration. His whole cabinet resigned at one point, and the House tried to impeach him. Tyler also strengthened the states rights forces that ultimately forced the Civil War. Nonetheless, he represents two more ranking principles. The first is that a President who made a major contribution to the office or the nation cannot be “the worst.” Tyler single-handedly set the precedent that a Vice-President finished the term of his deceased running mate, a tradition that has made such transitions smooth and safe ever since though the Constitution was ambiguous on that point. Tyler also stands for the rule that a President can be penalized for his actions after leaving office. Tyler served in the Confederate Cabinet of Jefferson Davis. DISQUALIFIED

This takes us through the first ten Presidents. None qualify for the Worst title. Regarding the others in the group:

  • The “race trumps everything” fanatics would condemn the slave-owners among the first ten. Holding slaves is irrelevant to ranking their presidencies: it is a foolish position. Only the two Adamses, and Martin Van Buren did not own slaves.
  • Increasingly, woke historians want to make Andrew Jackson a contender for Worst because of his brutal treatment of the Native American tribes. But Jackson sets another ranking principle that will come in useful later: a major flaw in a President’s record cannot bring an otherwise effective and productive leader down to the bottom of the rankings. Jackson was a strong President, kept the secessionists at bay, democratized and strengthened his office, and was, over-all, very successful
  • His VP, Martin Van Buren, was undeniably weak as Jacskson’s successor, but he’s in the special category of hand-picked successors of iconic Presidents who were doomed from the start, being over-shadowed by their charismatic and popular patrons. William Howard Taft and George H.W. Bush were similarly handicapped. All served only a single term. None were qualified by temperament, personality or leadership skills to be President; Taft was the best of the three; Bush had the most successful four years, but they all were weak. Not the Worst, though.

The next group, 11 through 20, has several stronger candidates.

18 thoughts on “The Worst President Ever? Part 1

  1. Jack: “The first is that a President who made a major contribution to the office or the nation cannot be “the worst.””

    Not to entice you to give anything away, but can this be a negative too? I am thinking about a certain president who had a major contribution that resulted in an Amendment to the Constitution so it would never happen again.

    -Jut

    • Good one! Though that POTUS also made BIG contributions to the nation’s well being that remove him from any possible “worst” consideration as well as several terrible actions that would have put a less crucial POTUS into a neck and neck race for the cup.

      • I know your position on this, but I think a lot of it could be consequentialism; it turned out okay, so great.

        Problem is: we don’t know what would have happened otherwise.

        And, I complain that he bullied the Supreme Court more than Jackson or Obama.

        Suffice it to say, I would rank him lower than you would.

        -Jut

        P.S. To answer your question, no one.

        • Oh, I don’t think the worst of his leadership turned out OK at all. He could have been impeached, but he might have saved the world. I am certain he saved the US from a possible revolution just by force of leadership and personality. Indeed, moral luck worked in his favor and (ours) many times, notably in the surprising ability of his successor, whom he essentially picked out of a hat.

          I’m not a fan at all. But I don’t see how he can be ranked worse that 3-5.

          • To the chagrin of some former Facebook friends, I have described him as the closest the US has come to a dictatorship. I see no better counterexample.

            Then, he seems to be the antithesis of Washington, who gave up power willingly several times, a la Cincinnatus

            -Jut

            • Why chagrin? That’s obviously right. And that’s why the amendment was necessary. My father felt he was perfectly capable of being a dictator, and had the personality and popularity to pull it off. But not the health.

              Whew!

              • Chagrin because they could not conceive that anyone would say their emperor was naked.

                Cast one way: he was a great leader that shepherded the nation through an unprecedented challenge.

                To others, he was a proto-dictator who destroyed federalism.

                Amusingly, some view Lincoln in the same way.

                -Jut

                • Actually, I’d say Lincoln is a valid comparison, as far as federalism. The Civil War, and the means and methods Lincoln had to use to fight it, dealt a body blow to federalism. I think it’s gotten a lot worse since, but that was a big start — when the United States and reach down into a state and essentially tell someone you must serve in the army and the United States will spend your life’s blood as it sees fit……

                  It may be apocryphal, but what I have heard is that before the Civil War Americans would commonly say ‘The United States are…’ (and the Brits still do). Afterwards, Americans would more commonly say ‘The United States is…”. A subtle but important shift, I think.

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