Who Was the Worst President?

Photo of President Nixon with Elvis Presley
President Richard Nixon was forced to resign from office following the Watergate scandal.

There is always a fascination with ranking presidents from worst to best to see how they compare. Those in power want to end their term with a good legacy that places them in at least the top 10, but this is easier said than done. So, who are the contenders for the worst president of the United States?

A Divisive Topic of Conversation

This is a difficult question to answer because there are so many factors to consider. Some will say that any president that took the nation into war is a clear candidate, while others will focus on major scandals and impeachments. Historians will take a more comprehensive record of achievement and failure into account to find the average. Then there are the simple factors of public opinion on integrity, intelligence, and personality.

The following list is in no particular order in terms of ranking the past presidents from worst to not quite so bad. There is too much of a divide in opinion over different criteria to say that one is definitively worse than the other. However, many of these names are found across lists compiled by historians for C-Span, CBS, and US News. 

10 of the Worst Presidents To Take Office

Donald Trump

Let’s get this one out of the way first because it is both the most expected and controversial right now. Many in the United States would argue that he is the worst because there are so many marks against his name. Critics, including historians placing President Donald Trump high on their list, highlight poor skills, low intelligence, and a lack of integrity as significant factors.

Photo of President Donald Trump
President Trump faced a barrage of criticism during his term in office.

President Trump remains controversial because there is still so much anger over issues regarding attitudes towards immigration and Covid. There is also the fact that he was impeached twice. But, he may drop down the list when the dust settles a little.

Andrew Johnson

Johnson is a name that regularly tops the lists created by historians when surveyed on the best and worst presidents. There isn’t much that is positive to say about Andrew Johnson. He was seen as a difficult man to work with and was often at loggerheads with Congress and his own party around issues regarding the Civil War. It also doesn’t help that he was following in the footsteps of the assassinated Abraham Lincoln or that he was impeached.

James Buchanan

Many of those deemed to be the worst president in American history were in power around the time of the Civil War. For some, the problem was one of ineptitude. James Buchanan was in over his head and failed to handle the complexity and urgency of the crisis.

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce is credited with creating policies that would go on to trigger the Civil War. Any president who can take even partial blame for this great national divide will be high on this list. The biggest issue here was the Kansas-Nebraska Act which allowed territories to define their own slavery laws.

Millard Fillmore

Millard Fillmore’s position in this list is for similar reasons to Pierce. He was responsible for the Fugitive Slave Act, where escaped slaves had to be returned to their owners. He wasn’t well-liked by his own Whig Party and didn’t receive another nomination. He was also the second on this list to fail after assuming the presidency following a death in office.

Sketch of President Millard Fillmore
Fillmore’s Fugitive Slave Act was not a positive legacy to leave behind.

Warren G Harding

There are a few parallels between Warren G Harding and Trump. Neither was held in high regard by the public, both enjoyed a round of golf in their spare time, and each was associated with high-profile scandals. The worst in the case of Harding was the corruption of the oil deals in the Teapot Dome scandal.

Herbert Hoover

Moving forward in time to the 1900s, Herbert Hoover is a good candidate for the worst of that century. The main mark against his name is that he was in charge when the nation fell into the Great Depression. “Hooverville” camps appeared across the country.

Hooverville Camps
Hooverville Camps in 1933

Richard Nixon

In keeping with the more modern period for a moment and presidents within living memory, many would argue that Richard Nixon should be on the list. He is certainly presented as a villain in popular culture. But, this primarily stems from his resignation in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. Historians argue that he was an effective president until then.

George Bush Jr.

Many would suggest that George Bush Jr deserves a place here when discussing modern-day presidents. This is mainly due to the impact of the War on Terror, misinformation surrounding WMDs in Iraq, and the response to 9/11. Still, public opinion has softened in recent years.

Photo of President George W. Bush
The War on Terror was a black mark on George W. Bush’s presidency for many.

Any President That Died in Their First Year

It isn’t easy to round this list out to a clear top 10 because there are so many criteria and mixed opinions. So, let’s end by looking at two men that barely made an impression. It is difficult to say that these two men were ineffective presidents when they weren’t around long enough to accomplish anything of note. But, they certainly can’t rank higher than those that implemented important policies.

The first of these is William Henry Harrison. Harrison now has the reputation of being a foolish president because he did not wear a coat in cold weather at his inauguration, caught pneumonia, and died just 31 days after taking office. He may have become a great leader if he had survived, but poor decision-making was his downfall.

Then there is Zachary Taylor. He lasted a little longer into his first term but fell ill around Independence Day after indulging in iced milk and cherries. It is believed that contaminated water killed him.

The Worst President of the United States

There is a good chance that the name you were thinking of isn’t here. There is always a case to be made for any president who deals with controversial policies or scandals. This list highlights the terrible period of leadership around the Civil War, the failures in modern-day presidencies, and others that failed to make a positive mark. 

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