Michael Stoll: The 5 worst presidents (according to historians)

Published 6:30 am Saturday, October 31, 2020

Abraham Lincoln. George Washington. Thomas Jefferson. Franklin Roosevelt.

What do they all have in common? They’re largely praised by historians as some of the best leaders to serve as President of the United States.

Throughout U.S. history, presidents have been judged by their handling of the major issues of their days and how it affected the nation in the long term. And if there are good ones, there are inevitably bad ones.

One such name that comes to mind is John Tyler, a Whig whose refusal to resurrect the national bank resulted in the mass resignation of all but one member of his Cabinet. Another would be Calvin Coolidge, whose failure to aid the economically depressed agricultural sector caused the closure of about 5,000 rural banks, resulting in thousands of farmers losing their land.

While historians don’t always agree how each president ranks in accordance with best to worst, the following five presidents are universally panned as the worst men to ever lead the nation.

Millard Fillmore (1850-53)

In 1848, the Whig Party nominated Mexican War hero Gen. Zachary Taylor for president. Former New York Congressman Millard Fillmore was nominated as vice president to appeal to anti-slavery northern Whigs who were concerned about Taylor, a slaveholder, being the party’s presidential nominee. The two did not know each other until after Taylor was elected president. While vice president, Fillmore was largely ignored by the Taylor Administration.

In 1850, as the issue of whether or not slavery should be allowed to expand was rapidly dividing the country, Congress put forth the Compromise of 1850. Under its terms, California would be admitted to the Union as a free state, while the Fugitive Slave Act, which would have punished anyone assisting runaway slaves and required the federal government to take an active role in returning fugitive slaves, would be enacted. Taylor threatened to veto the bill, but when Taylor died on July 9, 1850, Fillmore was sworn in as president and signed the bill into law.

While the bill succeeded in preventing civil war (at least temporarily), it further incensed sectional division. It also split the Whig Party, whose antislavery faction despised the Fugitive Slave Act.

Fillmore was not nominated in 1852 (the last year the Whigs ran a presidential candidate), but later ran for president in 1856 as the candidate for the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant American Party (also known as the Know-Nothing Party).

Franklin Pierce  (1853-57)

In June 1852, members of the Democratic National Convention in Baltimore were struggling to find a candidate they all agreed upon. Votes were split between Michigan Senator Lewis Cass, former Secretary of State James Buchanan, Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas and former Secretary of War William Marcy. On the 35th ballot, the Virginia delegation suggested a compromise candidate: former New Hampshire Senator Franklin Pierce. It wasn’t until the 49th ballot that Pierce was officially nominated.

After his election, Pierce presided over a country that was already divided over whether or not slavery should spread. Pierce supported the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which called for the slavery question to be determined by popular sovereignty in the newly established Kansas and Nebraska Territories. While the vast majority of residents in the Nebraska Territory were opposed to slavery, pro- and anti-slavery settlers poured into the Kansas Territory to sway the outcome. The violent clashes between the two groups were so bad that Kansas was given the moniker “Bleeding Kansas.”

In 1854, Pierce drew extensive criticism when the New York Herald leaked the contents of what was dubbed the “Ostend Manifesto,” an internal government communication that argued the United States should wrest control of Cuba from Spain if Spain did not agree to sell the island to the U.S. Pierce’s opponents denounced the manifesto as a plot to extend slavery. Pierce’s reputation took another hit in 1855 when he recognized pro-slavery soldier of fortune William Walker as president of Nicaragua after Walker led an insurgency to overthrow the Nicaraguan government.

Deemed unelectable by his own party, Pierce was not nominated for re-election in 1856.

James Buchanan (1857-61)

A glance at Buchanan’s impressive political resume would not lead one to think he would be on this list. He served in the Pennsylvania Legislature, both chambers of Congress, and was secretary of state under President James Polk. He also served as minister to Russia (supposedly because President Andrew Jackson wanted to get him as far away as possible) and was minister to Great Britain under Pierce.

When the 1856 Democratic National Convention convened in Cincinnati, Buchanan was the front-runner since his time abroad had kept him distant from the turmoil of the Pierce administration. Buchanan was one of the primary authors of the Ostend Manifesto, which made him appeal to the southern delegates.

Shortly after Buchanan took office, the collapse of the Ohio Life Insurance Company of Cincinnati sparked the Panic of 1857. After a wave of bank runs across the country, an economic depression set in that lasted until the Civil War.

And that was just the beginning of Buchanan’s problems.

Like his predecessor, Buchanan found himself dealing with the slavery issue. In 1857, the Supreme Court ruled in Dred Scott vs. Sanford that any attempts to prevent the spread of slavery were unconstitutional. This further exacerbated the violent situation in the Kansas Territory, where pro-slavery territorial Gov. Robert Walker held a state constitutional convention boycotted by anti-slavery elements. With the support of Buchanan, Walker petitioned Congress to accept Kansas into the Union as a slave state; however, Congress rejected his request on the grounds that residents of Kansas had not been allowed to vote on it. In 1858, Kansas voters rejected the pro-slavery constitution.

But the final nail in Buchanan’s coffin came after the Election of 1860. Buchanan did not seek a second term and the Democratic Party was divided between Northern Democrat Stephen Douglas and Southern Democrat John Breckinridge. This split allowed for the election of Republican Abraham Lincoln. Fearing Lincoln meant to abolish slavery where it existed, seven southern states seceded from the Union before Buchanan left office. Although he believed secession was illegal, Buchanan felt the federal government lacked constitutional authority to force any state to remain in the Union and therefore did nothing.

When welcoming Lincoln to the White House, Buchanan is said to have told him, “If you are as happy, my dear sir, on entering this house as I am on leaving it and returning home, you are the happiest man in the country.”

Ulysses S. Grant (1869-77)

As the hero of the Civil War, Grant was unanimously nominated on the first ballot at the 1868 Republican National Convention in Chicago. The major issue of the day was Reconstruction, a point of contention that had caused a major divide between the Radical Republicans in Congress and President Andrew Johnson. Grant pledged to continue federal occupation in the South, but ran under the slogan “Let us have peace.”

Grant’s two terms in office have become synonymous with scandal, though Grant himself was never personally involved with them. The first such scandal occurred in 1869, when speculators James Fisk and Jay Gould attempted to corner the gold market by aggressively purchasing gold and raising the price. They employed Grant’s brother-in-law Abel Corbin to exercise influence on Grant and make it appear Grant was on their side. When Grant finally realized what was going on, he ordered the treasury department to sell off $4 million in federal gold, dropping the price of gold and causing many investors and businesses to go broke.

During the 1872 campaign, it was revealed that officers of the Crédit Mobilier holding company had skimmed off huge profits in the federally subsidized construction of the Union Pacific Railroad. The officers then bribed several members of Congress (including House Speaker Schuyler Colfax, Grant’s vice president) by selling shares of stock at a deeply discounted price to stave off an investigation. Because of his involvement, Colfax was not nominated for vice president in 1872. Throughout the campaign, Grant relied on his subordinates to explain the scandal.

In 1875, Treasury Secretary Benjamin Bristow learned that hundreds of distillers and federal officials had diverted millions of dollars in liquor taxes into their own pockets in what was dubbed the Whiskey Ring scandal. Grant vowed to prosecute all involved, but when his personal secretary Orville Babcock was accused, Grant stepped in on his behalf.

Adding to Grant’s woes was the Panic of 1873, which occurred after the failure of Jay Cooke and Company. That, combined with an economic crisis in Europe, sparked a depression that lasted for five years.

Warren G. Harding (1921-23)

During the 1920 Republican National Convention in Chicago, delegates were deadlocked on several candidates, none of whom could get the required number of votes to secure the nomination. They ended up settling on Ohio Senator Warren G. Harding, a dark horse candidate who had introduced 134 bills of little to no impact during his time in the Senate. But, Harding had no enemies, no skeletons in his closet and had voted the party line in favor of enfranchising women, supporting prohibition and opposing U.S. entry into the League of Nations.

Like Grant, Harding’s time in office was marred by scandal, much of which came to light after his death in 1923. The most notorious was the Teapot Dome scandal involving Interior Secretary Albert Fall. Fall persuaded Harding to transfer control of federal oil reserves to him, then secretly allowed the Mammoth Oil Company to tap the Teapot Dome oil reserve in Wyoming. In exchange, Fall received $308,000 (roughly $4.5 million in today’s currency) and a herd of cattle. He also received bribes from the Pan-American Petroleum and Transport Company for drilling rights in California’s Elk Hills reserve. In 1929, Fall was convicted of accepting bribes and spent 10 months in prison.

Fall was not the only member of Harding’s administration to get into legal trouble. Attorney General Harry Daugherty was indicted for conspiracy to defraud the government regarding property seized from German nationals during World War I. Although he survived two hung juries, his personal aide Jess Smith destroyed all papers associated with the plan and committed suicide. Charles Forbes, Harding’s head of the Veterans Bureau, was also sentenced to two years in prison for receiving kickbacks on the sale of war surplus goods and diverting alcohol and drugs from Veterans hospitals to bootleggers and narcotics dealers.

Like Grant, Harding had no personal involvement in the scandals, though it is believed he may have learned about them before his death.