8 Worst Presidents in U.S. History

How do you determine who the worst presidents in U.S. history are? Asking some of the most notable presidential historians is a good place to start. In 2017, C-SPAN issued their third in-depth survey of presidential historians, asking them to identify the nation's worst presidents and discuss why.

For this survey, C-SPAN consulted 91 leading presidential historians, asking them to rank the United States' leaders on 10 leadership characteristics. Those criteria include a president's legislative skills, his relations with Congress, performance during crises, with allowances for historical context.

Over the course of the three surveys, released in 2000 and 2009, some of the rankings have changed, but the three worst presidents have remained the same, according to historians. Who were they? The results just might surprise you!

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James Buchanan

James Buchanan

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When it comes to the title of the worst president, historians agree James Buchanan was the worst. Some presidents are associated, directly or indirectly, with major Supreme Court rulings of their tenure. When we think of Miranda v. Arizona (1966), we might lump it together with Johnson's Great Society reforms. When we think of Korematsu v. United States (1944), we can't help but think of Franklin Roosevelt's mass internment of Japanese Americans.

But when we think of Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), we don't think of James Buchanan — and we should. Buchanan, who made the pro-slavery policy a central tenet of his administration, boasted in advance of the ruling that the issue of whether or not to enslave people was about to be resolved "speedily and finally" by his friend Chief Justice Roger Taney's decision, which defined African Americans as subhuman non-citizens.

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Andrew Johnson

Andrew Johnson

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"This is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am President, it shall be a government for white men."
—Andrew Johnson, 1866

Andrew Johnson is one of only three presidents to be impeached (Bill Clinton and Donald Trump are the others). Johnson, a Democrat from Tennessee, was Lincoln's vice president at the time of the assassination. But Johnson did not hold the same views on race as Lincoln, a Republican, and he repeatedly clashed with the GOP-dominated Congress over nearly every measure related to Reconstruction.

Johnson tried to outmaneuver Congress in readmitting Southern states to the Union, opposed the 14th Amendment, and illegally fired his secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, leading to his impeachment.

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Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce
The National Archives

Franklin Pierce wasn't popular with his own party, the Democrats, even before he was elected. Piece refused to appoint a vice president after his first vice president, William R. King, died shortly after taking office.

During his administration, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 was passed, which many historians say pushed the U.S., already bitterly divided over the issue of the enslavement of people, toward the Civil War. Kansas was flooded with pro- and anti-slavery settlers, both groups determined to create a majority when statehood was declared. The territory was torn by bloody civil unrest in the years leading up Kansas' eventual statehood in 1861.

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Warren Harding

President Warren G. Harding At Desk

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Warren G. Harding served only two years in office before dying in 1923 of a heart attack. But his time in office would be marked by numerous presidential scandals, some of which are still considered brazen by today's standards.

Most notorious was the Teapot Dome scandal, in which Albert Fall, the secretary of the interior, sold oil rights on federal land and profited personally to the tune of $400,000. Fall went to prison, while Harding's attorney general, Harry Doughtery, who was implicated but never charged, was forced to resign.

In a separate scandal, Charles Forbes, who was head of the Veterans Bureau, went to prison for using his position to defraud the government.

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John Tyler

Engraved portrait of President John Tyler

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John Tyler believed that the president, not Congress, should set the nation's legislative agenda, and he clashed repeatedly with members of his own party, the Whigs. He vetoed a number of Whig-backed bills during his first months in office, prompting much of his Cabinet to resign in protest. The Whig Party also expelled Tyler from the party, bringing domestic legislation to a near standstill during the remainder of his term. During the Civil War, Tyler vocally supported the Confederacy.

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William Henry Harrison

William Henry Harrison

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William Henry Harrison had the shortest tenure of any U.S. president; he died of pneumonia a little more than a month after his inauguration. But during his time in office, he accomplished virtually nothing of note. His most significant act was to call Congress into special session, something that earned the wrath of Senate majority leader and fellow Whig Henry Clay. Harrison disliked Clay so much that he refused to speak with him, telling Clay to communicate with him by letter instead. Historians say it was this discord that led to the Whigs' eventual demise as a political party by the Civil War.

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Millard Fillmore

Millard Fillmore

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When Millard Fillmore took office in 1850, enslavers had a problem: When enslaved people sought freedom in anti-slavery states, law enforcement agencies in those states refused to return them to their enslavers. Fillmore, who claimed to "detest" the enslavement of people but invariably supported it, had the Fugitive Slave Act of 1853 passed to remedy this problem — not only requiring free states to return enslaved people to their enslavers but also making it a federal crime not to assist in doing so. Under the Fugitive Slave Act, hosting a freedom-seeking enslaved person on one's property became dangerous.

Fillmore's bigotry wasn't limited to African Americans. He was also noted for his prejudice against the growing number of Irish Catholic immigrants, which made him extremely popular in nativist circles.

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Herbert Hoover

circa 1962: Portrait of former American president Herbert Hoover (1874 - 1964) seated in an armchair with a pipe in his suite at the Waldorf Towers, New York City.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Any president would have been challenged by Black Tuesday, the 1929 stock market crash that heralded the start of the Great Depression. But Herbert Hoover, a Republican, is generally viewed by historians as having not been up to the task.

Although he initiated some public works projects in an attempt to combat the economic downturn, he resisted the kind of massive federal intervention that would take place under Franklin Roosevelt.

Hoover also signed into law the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, which caused foreign trade to collapse. Hoover is criticized for his use of Army troops and lethal force to suppress the Bonus Army protesters, a largely peaceful demonstration in 1932 of thousands of World War I veterans who occupied the National Mall.

What About Richard Nixon?

Richard Nixon, the only president to resign from office, is rightly criticized by historians for the abuses of presidential authority during the Watergate scandal. Nixon is considered the 16th-worst president, a position that would have been lower if it not for his achievements in foreign policy, such as normalizing relations with China and domestic achievements such as creating the Environmental Protection Agency.

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Head, Tom. "8 Worst Presidents in U.S. History." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/worst-american-presidents-721460. Head, Tom. (2023, April 5). 8 Worst Presidents in U.S. History. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/worst-american-presidents-721460 Head, Tom. "8 Worst Presidents in U.S. History." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/worst-american-presidents-721460 (accessed June 7, 2023).