Every now and again a magazine cites a group of historians to pick the best and worst presidents. And there, at the bottom of the scale, I typically find James Buchanan, Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson; Warren Harding, and/or Ulysses Grant, none of whom deserve the dishonor, in my opinion. For Pierce and Buchanan, their high crime was to not solve the slavery /succession problem — as if this was a problem that any PhD historian would have been able to solve in a weekend. It was not so simple; the slavery question bedeviled the founding fathers, tormented Daniel Webster and Henry Clay; George Washington and Thomas Jefferson wrestled with it. None could solve it, at all when the country had relative levels of good feeling. Now, in the 1850s Pierce and Buchanan inherit this monster, and we blame them for not solving it when the nation was at the boiling point and Kansas was burning. They did the best they could in impossible circumstance, buying us time (Pierce also bought us southern Arizona).
Similarly, with Johnson: our historians’ complaint is that he didn’t manage reconstruction well — as if any one of them could have done better. You can’t blame a person for failing in a hopeless situation. Be happy they filled their terms, avoided war with our neighbors, and left the country richer and more populous than they found it.
Moving on to Grant and Harding, their crime was to be president at a time of scandal. But the very essence of this condemnation is that it presents the scandal, a non-issue in the large sweep of America, as if it were the only issue. Both Harding and Grant drank in the white house, and played cards while members of their cabinets stole money. These are major scandals to blue noses, but not so relevant to normal people. Both presidencies were periods of prosperity, employment, and growth. Both presidents paid down the national debt. Harding paid down $2,000,000 of debt, a good chunk of the debt incurred in WWI. Grant paid down a similarly large chunk of the debts of the civil war. Both oversaw times of peace and both signed peace treaties: Harding from WWI, Grant from the civil war and the Indian wars. Both left office with the nation far more prosperous than when they came in. No, these are not bad presidents except in the eyes of puritans who have require purity, and care little for the needs of the average American.
The worst president, in my opinion, was John Adams, and I would say he set a standard for bad that’s not likely to be beat. How bad was Adams? He oversaw the worst single law ever in American history, the sedition act. This act, a partner to the sedition act (almost as bad) was pushed though by Adams a mere 8 years after passage of the bill of rights. The act made it illegal to criticize the government in any way. In this, it made a mockery of free expression. Adams put someone in jail for calling him “his rotundancy” — that is, for calling him fat. The supreme court had to step in and undo that law, but this was a horrible law and only one of several horrible acts of Adams.
Another horrible act of Adams is that he decided to pick a war with France, our ally from the revolution. Adams himself had signed the treaty of Paris guaranteeing that we would never go to war with France. So why did Adams do it? He didn’t like French immorality and French Catholicism. He was insulted that French officials wanted bribes, and presented this to the public (the XYZ affair) as the reason for war. So Adams, pure Adams, got us to war with our oldest ally. But Adams didn’t stop there, having decided to go to war, he also decided to stop paying on US debt. He was too pure to pay debt to a nation that overthrew its king and set up a more-egalitarian state than we had. One where slavery was abolished.
Adams, of course did nothing to address slavery, though he berated others about it. And it’s not like Adams didn’t pay out bribes, just not to the despised Catholics. At the beginning of Adams’s single term a group of Moslems, the Barbary pirates, captured some American ships. Adams agreed to pay bribe after bribe to the Barbary Pirates for return of these US ships. But the more we paid, them the more ships the Barbary pirates captured. So Adams, the idiot just bribed them with more. By the end of Adams’s term, 1/4 of the US budget went to pay these pirates. When Jefferson became president, he ended the war with France by the simple solution of buying Louisiana, and he sent the US Marines to deal with the pirates of North Africa. Adams could have done these things but didn’t; Jefferson did, and is ranked barely above Adams as a result. So why is it that no historian calls out Addams as an awful president?.I think it’s because Adams wrote beautifully about all the right sentiments, especially to his wife. Historians like writers of high sentiment. According to 170 scholars, the top ten presidents, not counting those on Mount Rushmore are FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Reagan, Obama, and LBJ.
And that brings us to the new poll. It includes William Henry Harrison among the worst. Harrison took office, became sick almost immediately, and died of Typhoid 31 days after taking office. The white house water supply was just down river from the sewage outlet, something you find in Detroit as well. He did nothing to deserve the dishonor except drinking the water after running a great presidential campaign. His campaign song, Tippcannoe and Tyler too is wonderful listening, even today.
And that brings us to the historian’s worst of the worst. The current president, Donald J. Trump. This is remarkable since it’s only a year into Trumps term, and since he’s done a variety of potentially good things: He ended a few trade deals and regulations that most people agree were bad. The result is that the stock market is up, employment is up, people are back at work, and historians are unhappy. What they want is another FDR, someone who’ll tell us: “We have nothing to fear, but fear itself.” whatever that means. By historian polls FDR is the second or third best president ever.