Listen to this story on “Retropod”:
History has been kind to only one of them — recent history, at that. This year, the 170 members of the American Political Science Association’s Presidents and Executive Politics section voted George W. Bush out of that worst-of-the-worst group, boosting him from number 35 to number 30.
Otherwise, the presidents who led us into economic disaster and a Civil War continue to get the thumbs down from scholars. These are the commanders in chief who don’t score monuments, airport monikers or bobbleheads.
So what did these 10 worst presidents do to earn the scorn of scholars? Let’s check them out.
#35 — Zachary Taylor
Taylor, known as “Old Rough and Ready,” earned his low ranking for some of the very things that once made him popular. The country’s 12th president was a war hero who served in the military for four decades, from the War of 1812 to the Mexican War. A political outsider, the first election he voted in was the one he won in 1848. He was a popular president in his time. He owned plantations and slaves, but fought hard to get the western territories admitted as free states to keep the nation united. His pro-union, antislavery rhetoric was initially modeled by Abraham Lincoln (who always scores first place in this survey). But his personal lack of conviction on the issue (he owned 83 slaves) and campaigns against the Seminole and Chippewa make him look amoral in the rearview mirror. He died in office, days after getting a stomach virus from eating raw vegetables and a bowl of cherries. (And no, he wasn’t poisoned. His body was exhumed in 1991 to test that conspiracy theory).
#36 — Herbert Hoover
Hoover was so loathed that he got an entire scene in the musical “Annie,” making fun of his legacy. Perhaps our 31st president got a raw deal when he took office in 1929 and the stock market crashed seven months later. But even if America was willing to blame the previous administration for the conditions that led up to the Great Depression, it was Hoover who presided over it and failed to end it. Millions of Americans lost homes and jobs. Shantytowns of the homeless — called Hoovervilles — spread across the nation. A Quaker and humanitarian in his younger days, Hoover repeatedly quashed programs that would bring food and shelter — humanitarian relief — to desperate Americans. Heartless Hoover said he withheld help because he didn’t want to endanger capitalism. “Prosperity cannot be restored by raids upon the public Treasury,” he explained in his 1930 State of the Union address.
#37 — John Tyler
Tyler, the nation’s 10th president, was known as “His Accidency” and was labeled a traitor when he died, so this ranking is no surprise. Tyler was William Henry Harrison’s vice president. But when Harrison died just a month after taking office (he was the one who refused to wear a coat and hat during his cold and wet inauguration), the orders of succession weren’t entirely clear. Never mind, Tyler took care of that, quickly found some district judge to swear him in and made himself president, rather than act as vice president in charge. (The 25th Amendment took that on, about 120 years later). He annexed Texas and welcomed Florida into the Union. But by the time he died in Richmond in 1862, he had advocated for Virginia’s secession and was preparing to join the Confederate House of Representatives. He helped raise the curtain on the unrest that became the Civil War.
#38 — Millard Fillmore
Fillmore was so uninspiring that the Millard Fillmore Society was formed more than a century after his death, celebrating anonymity and inconsistency with an annual Medal of Mediocrity award. He took over after Taylor died, becoming our 13th commander in chief. So you could say he became president thanks to a bowl of rotting fruit. Fillmore said he was personally against slavery, but gave in to the Southern slavers immediately, signing the Fugitive Slave Act. That let slave owners use federal officers to hunt runaway slaves across the nation. His lack of leadership helped plunge the nation into the Civil War. And during the war, he openly opposed President Abraham Lincoln.
#39 — Warren Harding
Harding presided over a White House filled with drama and corruption, though none of it was traced back to him. The 29th president opposed Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations. His pro-business stance slashed taxes for corporations and the wealthy. He was pro-tariff and anti-immigration. He boosted the economy with a plan that raised interest rates, reduced the public debt and balanced the federal budget. But his legacy could not withstand the Teapot Dome Scandal and other wheeling and dealing that went on inside his tainted and chaotic White House.
#40 — Andrew Johnson
Johnson became president after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. His spot on the list is obvious when you see his record after the Civil War. As soon as he took office as the nation’s 17th commander in chief, he worked to quickly restore the Southern states to the Union and gave amnesty to Confederates, who elected new governments that passed “black codes” designed to oppress newly freed slaves. Johnson then vetoed legislation aimed at protecting them — the Freedmen’s Bureau bill and the Civil Rights bill. When Congress passed the 14th Amendment granting citizenship to black people, Johnson urged the Southern states not to ratify it. The House of Representatives voted to impeach Johnson because he suspended Secretary of War Edwin Stanton when he opposed Johnson’s Reconstruction policies.
#41 — Franklin Pierce
Pierce, our 14th president, was largely undone by Kansas. And again, his tepid stance on slavery doesn’t endear him to those who understand the legacy of our nation’s sin. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, supported by Pierce, made Kansas and Nebraska into territories, repealing their ban on slavery and allowing them to choose which side they wanted to take. It created chaos. Slavers poured across borders into Kansas to vote proslavery. Meanwhile, anti-slave settlers formed a government and tried to become a free state. It was a mess that Pierce handled so poorly that his own Democratic Party wouldn’t give him the nomination in the next election.
#42 — William Henry Harrison
Harrison only got to be president for 32 days. The ninth commander in chief entered office as a war hero; the troops under his command won the Battle of Thames and killed Tecumseh. But the war hero wouldn’t dress warmly for his 1841 inauguration, a cold and windy day in March. And he died of pneumonia a month later. No legacy, no glory.
#43 — James Buchanan
The only lifelong bachelor to serve as president was at the bottom of this list until Trump came along. His crime? He was a proslavery politician who thought the nation’s increasing moral discomfort with slavery would be resolved by the Supreme Court’s dreadful Dred Scott decision, the ruling that denied U.S. citizenship to black residents. He, too, tried to help Kansas become a slavery state. Buchanan, the country’s 15th president, basically rolled out the red carpet for the Civil War, then gleefully turned the fractured country over to Lincoln.
#44 — Donald Trump
Dead last is an accomplishment for a guy who’s only been president for a year. Of course, it’s easy to attribute that to our political polarization and the liberal bent of many presidential scholars. But those who identified themselves as Republican-leaning also rated Trump as a lousy commander in chief, though not the worst. They ranked him #40, awarding him a better spot than the crew of wretched men who led us into the Civil War. The nation, after all, isn’t at war with itself. Yet.
Read more Retropolis: