Bad Presidents: Sifting Through the Ash Heap of Presidential History

As I mentioned a few posts back, C-Span recently released their updated presidential rankings for 2017. While there were some notable changes, the men occupying the bottom of this list remained static once again. In fact, if you looked at the majority of presidential rankings, you’ll find the same names over and over at the bottom. Of five recent polls I examined, the bottom four spots were occupied by the same four names: Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson, Warren Harding, and James Buchanan. All five polls were unanimous in listing Buchanan as the worst president in our history.

Having read biographies of each of these men, I certainly wouldn’t argue that they are good presidents. What I would like to examine, however, is why historians appear to come to the same conclusions time and again. What marks these presidents as failures? How much of the failure of their presidency is their responsibility? Would a more effective president been able to make a difference at that moment? How do we factor in the periods when the presidency was weakened by design?

I’m not setting out to salvage these presidents from the ash heap of history. Rather, I want to re-evaluate these lesser historical lights and see what, if anything, their presidencies can tell us about the nature of political success and failure. Perhaps there are lessons to be learned that might help us avoid similar failures in our future.