Not all United States presidents are remembered after they leave the White House. Some receive a widespread accolade for their tenure, while the others receive lots and lots of criticism for the decisions that affected the whole nation.
10. Zachary Taylor
Zachary Taylor was a forgettable president as opposed to a failed one. And the reason is simple: the 12th president was probably the least politically astute president in American history, ignorant to the point of innocence.
He was a country boy who fought and commanded in major battles during the War of 1812 and the Mexican War. He was born in Virginia and raised in Kentucky. Jealous fellow generals mocked his lack of learning and polish—he rarely wore his uniform and was frequently mistaken for a farmer—but Abraham Lincoln praised his steady judgement, which enabled him to overcome unfavorable odds in numerous battles.
When the Whigs chose him as their candidate in 1848, they saw a good thing. A slaveholder who defended the “unusual institution” in the South, he was as opposed to its expansion into new states as he was to the idea of secession.
Some believe his opposition to the 1850 Compromise, which began to undo the Missouri Compromise, contributed to the outbreak of the Civil War. If it had, Taylor would not have hesitated to confront the secessionists. His military record may have given them pause. But the test never arrived. He died in office after only a little more than a year.
9. Herbert Hoover
Hoover was a poor communicator who fueled trade wars and worsened the Great Depression. On the eve of the Great Depression, Herbert Hoover, the 31st president, was elected. He entered office with the talents of a consummate manager and technocrat. During and after World War I, the Iowa native and Stanford-educated engineer oversaw massive relief operations in Europe. Under Harding and Calvin Coolidge, he served as Commerce Secretary.
When the Depression hit, he cut taxes and started public works projects to create jobs, but he refused outright relief. Hoover’s steadfast adherence to conservative principles may not have been his most serious issue. He came across as mean-spirited and uncaring because he was a poor communicator. Hoovervilles was the name given by the homeless to their makeshift shanty towns.
Perhaps his greatest policy blunder was supporting and signing a tariff act, which fueled international trade wars and exacerbated the Depression. However, his lack of style points would have cost him the election against FDR. Despite his many virtues, it is fair to say that Hoover fell short of the greatest challenge of his time.
He supported the 1850 Compromise, which delayed Southern secession by allowing slavery to spread. The 13th president was elected on the back of a popular war hero, Zachary Taylor, who died in office just over a year after taking office.
Fillmore, who was born in a log cabin in central New York, rose through the ranks of the Whig Party through school teaching and the law. A largely ignored vice president, he drew Taylor’s attention when he stated that if the Senate reached a deadlock, he would support the Compromise of 1850. The compromise represented everything Taylor opposed, consisting of five separate acts (including the Fugitive Slave Law, which required the federal government to return fugitive slaves to their masters).
After the ailing president passed away, his successor fought even harder for the compromise measures. Fillmore’s actions may have averted a national crisis and delayed the outbreak of the Civil War, but it was at an unconscionable cost.
The New York Times opined two decades after the infamous deal that it was Fillmore’s “misfortune to see in slavery a political rather than a moral question.” “Misfortune” may now appear to be too kind a word.
7. John Tyler
He was a staunch supporter of slavery who abandoned his party’s platform after becoming president. As a Jefferson Republican who was born into the planter aristocracy, Tyler opposed Federalist plans for high protective tariffs and publicly funded “internal improvements.”
He backed President Andrew Jackson’s campaign against the national bank while serving as a U.S. senator, but soon grew disenchanted with Old Hickory after he stopped South Carolina from overturning a small tariff. (Tyler, a staunch supporter of states’ rights and slavery, defended South Carolina’s right to secede if it so desired.)
However, once elected president, Tyler opposed everything his adopted party stood for, including the establishment of a national bank. One fellow Whig accused Tyler of resurrecting “the condemned and repudiated doctrines and practices of Jackson’s worst days.” Tyler had to fight an impeachment attempt after the entire Harrison-appointed cabinet resigned.
6. Warren G. Harding
Harding was an enthusiastic golfer and poker player whose presidency is most likely remembered for its long list of scandals and corruption. Warren G. Harding’s claim to fame is founded on spectacular incompetence, as expressed in his own pitiful words: “I am not fit for this office and should never have been here.”
He was an unrestrained womanizer known for his friendliness, good looks, and relentless desire to please. He was a former newspaperman and publisher who held a number of elected positions in his home state of Ohio. His father once told him that it was a good thing he wasn’t a girl “because you’d be in the way of the family all the time You can’t refuse.”
5. William Henry Harrison
After delivering the longest inaugural address in US history, he became ill with pneumonia, resulting in the shortest 30-day presidency in US history. It is an act of scholarly injustice that the ninth president appears on any list at all. The Virginian’s most famous achievement was defeating the Shawnees at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811.
4. Franklin Pierce
Pierce’s zeal for expanding the borders and thus adding several slave states contributed to the outbreak of the Civil War.
Pierce, a Jackson Democrat from New Hampshire, was dubbed “doughface” by Whig opponents as a northerner with southern principles.
When he was elected as the 14th president, the handsome Mexican War veteran was adamant about national expansion, even if it meant adding more slave states to the Union. To that end, he vehemently supported the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which, along with the earlier 1850 Compromise, effectively repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820.
Less successfully, he proposed annexing Cuba, by force if necessary, but his opponents exposed the plan, forcing him to renounce it. He did succeed in getting the United States to recognise a dubious regime in Nicaragua that was led by William Walker, an American adventurer who had instigated an uprising and installed himself as president.
Pierce was later described by Theodore Roosevelt as “a servile tool of men worse than himself… always ready to do any work the slave leaders set him.” Even a gushy campaign biography written by Pierce’s college friend Nathaniel Hawthorne couldn’t compensate for such negative feedback.
3. Andrew Johnson
Johnson avoided impeachment by opposing Reconstruction initiatives such as the 14th amendment.
Since the publication of Arthur Schlesinger’s 1948 poll, Andrew Johnson has fallen in scholarly esteem, most likely because post-Civil War Reconstruction has received a thorough scholarly face-lift, and Johnson is now scorned for opposing Radical Republican policies aimed at securing the rights and well-being of newly emancipated African-Americans.
Before becoming president, historian Woodrow Wilson sullied Reconstruction by portraying it as a vindictive program that harmed even repentant southerners while benefiting northern opportunists, known as Carpetbaggers, and cynical white southerners, known as Scalawags, who exploited alliances with blacks for political gain.
An increasingly nasty power struggle, in which Congress wrongfully attempted to strip him of certain constitutionally delegated powers, resulted in the first presidential impeachment and a near conviction. After failing to be renominated, he returned to Tennessee and was re-elected to the U.S. Senate.
It is true that Johnson did turn a blind eye to those southerners who attempted to undo what the Civil War had accomplished, despite what history’s current verdict may prove to be.
2. Donald Trump
Trump is the only living president on the list of the ten worst presidents in history, and he is also the only president who has been impeached twice. Trump’s highest ranking in the C-SPAN’s Presidential Leadership survey, was 32nd in public persuasion and 34th in economic management. He finished last in both moral authority and administrative skills.
1. James Buchanan
He refused to oppose the expansion of slavery or the growing bloc of states that became the Confederacy. Buchanan, a Pennsylvania-born Democrat who was deeply devout in his faith and the only bachelor elected to the presidency, saw slavery as an indefensible evil but, like the majority of his party, refused to challenge the constitutionally established order.
Even before becoming president, he supported various compromises that allowed slavery to spread into the western territories gained through the Louisiana Purchase and the Mexican War.
In his inaugural address, the 15th President implicitly supported the Supreme Court’s upcoming Dred Scott decision, which ruled that Congress lacked the authority to keep slavery out of the territories.
More damaging to his reputation was his acquiescence to the secessionist tide—his refusal to challenge the states that declared their intention to leave the Union after Lincoln’s election. As the situation grew out of control, Buchanan believed that the Constitution gave him no authority to act against would-be seceders.
To his dying day, he believed that history would reward him for carrying out his constitutional duty. He was mistaken.