The Worst President Ever? Part 2

In Part 1, an embarrassing 20 days ago, Ethics Alarms looked at the first ten American Presidents and found only two, James Madison and John Tyler, even slightly worthy of consideration. Neither were bad enough however to qualify for the finals, however. The next group, 11-20, have more promising candidates.

Zachary Taylor, like William Henry Harrison not long before him, never had a chance, dying after less than a year-and-a-half in office. The old general signaled that he would have been a strong President in the same sense that Andrew Jackson (and Donald Trump) were strong, which is not to say that he would have necessarily been good for the country. In the mold of Jackson, Taylor was a slave-holder who was determined not to let the demands of the slave-happy South tear the nation apart. His successor, Millard Fillmore, is often assumed to be a poor President because he has a funny name, but he wasn’t terrible. He presided over the adoption of the Compromise of 1850, which may have delayed the South’s attempt at succession until Abe Lincoln was around to deal with it, and dealt competently with a mess of foreign affairs problems in his less than three years in the White House.

America had to wait four more years, through the successful if openly imperialistic Polk administration, to get to its first strong candidates for Worst President, and then got four within the next five:

Franklin Pierce, 14th President, 1853-1857. It is sometimes said that nobody could have been successful as President in the decade running up to the Civil War, and that might be true, but it would be hard to be much worse than Franklyn Pierce. Everything he did or said seemed to increase tensions between the slavery and anti-slavery factions, and he was manipulated by stronger personalities like Secretary of War Jefferson Davis and Senator Stephen Douglas, like Pierce a Democrat. The result was the repeal of the Missouri Compromise and the institution of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which resulted in a bloody mini-civil war in Kansas. Through it all Pierce, like Kevin Bacon during the riot in “Animal House” (or Joe Biden today) kept insisting that all was well. Pierce is among our more tragic Presidents; nobody knows if he might have performed more competently had he not witnessed, along with his wife, their eleven-year-old son being crushed to death when their train crashed on the way to Washington, D.C. for Pierce’s inauguration. Jane Pierce reached Washington a broken woman, and never recovered from the trauma. Pierce weathered the family tragedy only slightly better, drinking heavily and often being incapacitated when clear thinking was crucial.

He easily makes the cut for Worst President. FINALS.

James Buchanan, 15th President, 1857-1861, does as well. To be fair, Buchanan might have been at least passable at other times in our history, but he ended up in the White House at exactly the moment when his ministerial and legalistic approach to leadership was most damaging. Imagine, at a time when settlers in Kansas had been killing each other over the question of slavery, Buchanan saying in his Inaugural Address that the question of expanding slavery was “happily, a matter of but little practical importance” since the Supreme Court was about to settle it “speedily and finally.” Two days later, the Dred Scott decision came down. Buchanan, and earlier version of George H.W. Bush, had been a lifetime government bureaucrat and good soldier, and when finally ascending to the top job was reluctant to act. As the union crumbled around him, Buchanan opined that the Southern states had no right to secede, but the U.S. had no legal right to stop them. It could well be that Buchanan’s single term could not have turned out much better, but it also could hardly have been worse.

Buchanan, like Pierce before him, makes the finals. He is a strong candidate for Worst President. FINALS.

Let’s skip right over Honest Abe to…

Andrew Johnson, 17th President, 1865-1871. Pierce and Buchanan had the metaphorical cards stacked against them, but the hand Johnson was given to play was even worse. He was a Southern Democrat who hadn’t been elected President, having to deal with a radical Republican Party; he was following a political genius and a brilliant leader; and the period after the Civil War was probably the most difficult, chaotic, existential mess the U.S. has had to deal with since the Civil War itself. Lincoln himself might not have been able to navigate through all of the challenges of Reconstruction, but the self-educated indentured tailor from Tennessee lacked the temperament and skills to do anything but crash and burn, which he did. Being a likely alcoholic didn’t help either.

When I was first starting my obsession with the Presidents, Andrew Johnson was the consensus choice of historians for the greatest failure of them all. He still is a front-runner for the title. FINALS.

Ulysses S. Grant, 18th President, 1869-1877. With Grant we reach the first of several President’s who have been slurred by the partisan bias of historians, who are, and ever have been, overwhelmingly Democratic partisans. He has been marked a failure almost from the moment he departed office, but it is fairer to say he was a disappointment. He was a natural military leader and had an ethical character, but his inexperience in politics and public service handicapped him greatly. In the 21st Century there have been several biographies that made the case that Grant was a better President than his ranking indicates, especially because he strongly opposed efforts to establish Jim Crow-style treatment of the freed slaves. On balance, Grant was a deeply flawed President; the economic crash in part triggered by his corrupt cronies makes that verdict beyond dispute. He cannot be rated the Worst, however. Disqualified.

The remaining two Presidents in the first twenty aren’t in the running. Rutherford B. Hayes, a one-term President who had his power and potential stripped away by the corrupt manner in which he was deemed “elected,” was mediocre, which given his disadvantages seems like an accomplishment. James Garfield, next in line, showed signs of being a great President, but a lunatic assassin and a group of bungling doctors cut his tenure, and life, short before he could do anything substantial.

Our finalists for Worst President now number three: Pierce, Buchanan, and poor Andrew Johnson.

Part 3 will examine POTUSes 21-30. Spoiler: We’ll have twice the finalists by the end of that chapter.

One thought on “The Worst President Ever? Part 2

  1. “…Buchanan saying in his Inaugural Address that the question of expanding slavery was “happily, a matter of but little practical importance” since the Supreme Court was about to settle it “speedily and finally.” Two days later, the Dred Scott decision came down.”

    It’s also very likely that Buchanan knew what the decision would be ahead of time.

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