American history has seen a wide range of presidents. From George Washington to today’s leaders, these men have defined the nation with their unique leadership styles, ideologies, and policies. Some are celebrated as visionary heroes, while others are condemned as failed leaders. In this article, we’ll explore the best and worst US presidents based on historical consensus, public opinion, and expert rankings.
List of 10 Best Presidents
1. George Washington (1789 – 1797)
As the inaugural president of the United States, George Washington set several important precedents. He was instrumental in establishing the machinery of government and defining the role of the presidency. His leadership during the formative years of the country was crucial. Washington’s voluntary decision to step down after two terms set a standard for future presidents, eventually becoming law with the 22nd Amendment in 1951.
2. Thomas Jefferson (1801 – 1809)
The principal author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson was a strong proponent of democracy, republicanism, and individual rights. His presidency saw the significant Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the United States, and the Lewis and Clark expedition, contributing to westward expansion.
3. Abraham Lincoln (1861 – 1865)
One cannot discuss influential presidents without mentioning Abraham Lincoln. His leadership during the Civil War, a watershed moment in American history, preserved the Union. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and subsequent passing of the 13th Amendment were monumental steps toward ending slavery. His presidency fundamentally transformed the nation.
4. Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933 – 1945)
The only president elected to four terms, Franklin D. Roosevelt led the country through the Great Depression and World War II, two of the most challenging periods in its history. His New Deal programs, such as the Social Security Act, changed the relationship between government and citizens, emphasizing a commitment to social welfare.
5. Theodore Roosevelt (1901 – 1909)
A progressive reformer, Theodore Roosevelt sought to balance the interests of business, consumers, and laborers. His “Square Deal” domestic policies and conservation efforts left a lasting impact. Internationally, his negotiations to end the Russo-Japanese War earned him the Nobel Peace Prize, highlighting his influence in foreign policy.
6. Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953 – 1961)
A war hero and the supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe during World War II, Eisenhower was well-respected and brought an end to the Korean War early in his presidency. His administration oversaw significant infrastructure projects like the Interstate Highway System and landmark legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1957.
7. James K. Polk (1845 – 1849)
A lesser-known but highly effective president, Polk fulfilled all major objectives outlined in his campaign: reestablishing the Independent Treasury System, reducing tariffs, acquiring Oregon Territory, and acquiring California and New Mexico from Mexico. His presidency played a key role in westward expansion.
8. Woodrow Wilson (1913 – 1921)
Woodrow Wilson’s presidency was defined by his visionary ideas and the tumultuous period of World War I. He implemented transformative progressive policies domestically through his New Freedom program. Internationally, he’s remembered for his Fourteen Points, advocating for democracy and peace, leading to the establishment of the League of Nations, a precursor to the United Nations.
9. Ronald Reagan (1981 – 1989)
With his charismatic personality and strong communication skills, Reagan spearheaded significant economic reforms, known as Reaganomics. These emphasized tax cuts, decreased social spending, increased military spending, and deregulation, profoundly shaping American conservatism. His firm stance against Communism, symbolized by his demand to the Soviet leader, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” marked a significant escalation in the Cold War.
10. Lyndon B. Johnson (1963 – 1969)
Assuming office after President Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson made significant strides in civil rights, pushing for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. His Great Society program introduced measures like Medicare and Medicaid, showing a commitment to tackling poverty and racial injustice.
The rankings of presidents often reflect their actions and decisions in response to the historical events and circumstances during their terms. To gain a deeper understanding of why some presidents like Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Franklin D. Roosevelt frequently top the lists, it’s essential to consider the unique challenges they faced and their response to these challenges.
Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War
Abraham Lincoln’s presidency was defined by the Civil War, arguably the most significant and traumatic event in American history. Lincoln came to power in a deeply divided nation, with slavery causing a rift between the northern and southern states. His decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, declaring freedom for slaves in Confederate-held territory, was a revolutionary act that fundamentally changed the nature of the Civil War and the nation’s future.
Lincoln’s steadfast leadership during the Civil War resulted in the preservation of the Union. His conciliatory approach towards the southern states during the early phases of Reconstruction set a tone of healing, even though his assassination in 1865 prevented him from seeing this effort to completion.
Country’s First President
George Washington was the country’s first president, operating without any precedent or blueprint. During his presidency, he faced the colossal task of consolidating the young nation and creating a functioning federal government following the Revolutionary War.
Washington was instrumental in shaping the executive office’s role and the government’s structure, setting several enduring precedents, such as the Cabinet system and the two-term limit. His decision to voluntarily relinquish power at the end of his second term was a momentous step that entrenched democratic norms and the peaceful transition of power.
Leadership in Challenging Periods
Franklin D. Roosevelt took office during one of the nation’s most challenging periods. The Great Depression had left millions unemployed and created widespread economic despair. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs aimed at providing relief, recovery, and reform significantly expanded the federal government’s role in the economy and society.
His leadership during World War II, including his ability to mobilize the American economy for war and develop international alliances, further underlines his place among the top-ranked presidents. Roosevelt’s inspiring speeches and ‘fireside chats’ fostered a sense of hope and resilience among Americans, demonstrating the power of presidential communication.
List of 10 Worst US Presidents
1. James Buchanan (1857-1861)
Buchanan frequently tops the list of the worst U.S. presidents due to his inability to prevent the Civil War. His indecisiveness and failure to address the growing tensions over slavery between the North and the South arguably led to one of the darkest periods in American history.
2. Andrew Johnson (1865-1869)
Taking office following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson faced an uphill task of Reconstruction following the Civil War. His lenient policies towards the Southern states and veto of civil rights legislation led to a backlash from Congress, resulting in his impeachment by the House of Representatives.
3. Franklin Pierce (1853-1857)
Pierce, like his successor Buchanan, failed to effectively manage the escalating tensions between the North and the South. His support for the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed territories to decide on the legality of slavery, led to bloody conflict and further inflamed sectional disputes.
4. Warren G. Harding (1921-1923)
Despite his popularity during his presidency, Harding’s administration is notorious for numerous scandals, most notably the Teapot Dome scandal. Harding’s lack of oversight allowed corruption to thrive in his administration, tarnishing the office’s reputation.
5. Millard Fillmore (1850-1853)
Fillmore ascended to the presidency following the death of Zachary Taylor, and his tenure is marked by controversial decisions. His signing of the Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act ignited further tension between abolitionists and slaveholders, contributing to the lead-up to the Civil War.
6. John Tyler (1841-1845)
Tyler, the first vice president to become president due to the incumbent’s death, was known as “His Accidency.” His policies and principles led to friction with his own party, the Whigs, who ultimately expelled him. This alienation severely hindered his effectiveness as a leader.
7. Richard Nixon (1969-1974)
Nixon is the only president in U.S. history to resign from office. Despite significant accomplishments, such as the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), his presidency is marred by the infamous Watergate scandal, which led to a profound erosion of public trust in the Oval Office.
8. Herbert Hoover (1929-1933)
Hoover had the misfortune of being president during the Great Depression’s onset. His response, deemed by many as insufficient and misdirected, exacerbated the economic crisis. While Hoover was not responsible for the Depression, his failure to alleviate it significantly impacted his historical ranking.
9. Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877)
Despite his military genius during the Civil War, Grant’s presidency was marked by economic turmoil and numerous scandals. His administration was riddled with corruption, including the infamous Whiskey Ring scandal, which involved government officials embezzling tax revenues.
10. William Henry Harrison (1841)
Harrison’s presidency is notable primarily because it was the shortest in U.S. history—lasting just a month before he died of pneumonia. While it’s hard to judge his effectiveness given the brevity of his tenure, his lack of impact lands him a spot on this list.
Now, having listed these presidents, it’s important to remember that assessing a president’s performance is a complex task. Various factors such as the historical context, the president’s personal attributes, political challenges, and public opinion at the time all play significant roles.
James Buchanan: A Closer Look
To understand more about why some presidents are often ranked at the bottom, let’s delve a bit deeper into one example—James Buchanan.
Buchanan’s presidency was plagued by a series of crises, most notably the issue of slavery and its expansion into new states. Buchanan maintained a ‘states’ rights’ stance, suggesting that it wasn’t within the federal government’s authority to regulate slavery. This stance, however, simply deferred the crisis, leading to increased sectional conflict.
His most notorious failure was the handling of the Dred Scott case. In this landmark 1857 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Congress could not prohibit slavery in U.S. territories, arguing that enslaved people were not U.S. citizens and therefore could not sue for their freedom. Buchanan hoped the ruling would settle the slavery issue, but it instead further polarized the nation.
Furthermore, Buchanan’s handling of the secession crisis was another dark mark on his presidency. Seven states seceded from the Union during his administration, and Buchanan, paralyzed by indecision, did little to stop them or address the escalating crisis. This inaction was a significant factor leading to the Civil War.
As we examine these less-successful presidencies, it becomes clear that leadership, decision-making, and the courage to face and address challenging issues head-on are critical traits for any effective leader—particularly the President of the United States.
While it’s easy to critique these individuals with the benefit of hindsight, it’s essential to remember that they were human beings dealing with incredibly complex issues. In the context of their times, many of their decisions might have seemed reasonable or even prudent.
However, these rankings remind us of the need for leaders who can rise to the occasion, especially during times of great difficulty or crisis. The qualities of effective leadership—decisiveness, vision, courage, integrity, and an ability to unite people towards a common goal—are timeless, and they remain as essential today as they were in the past.
In conclusion, the list of ‘worst’ presidents serves as a poignant reminder of the enormous challenges faced by those who occupy the Oval Office. While we should be mindful of their mistakes, we should also look to them as lessons on how to avoid similar pitfalls in the future. After all, history is not just about remembering the past—it’s also about learning from it.
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Perhaps this sentiment should be revised to: The only thing we have to fear is not learning from history. As we continue to move forward, let’s strive to remember the past, understand its context, and apply its lessons to ensure a brighter future.
Nixon’s Downfall: The Watergate Scandal
Richard Nixon’s presidency was mired by the notorious Watergate scandal that began with a seemingly insignificant burglary at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. The burglars were linked back to Nixon’s reelection campaign, the Committee to Re-elect the President (CRP).
When investigations revealed that the Nixon administration had attempted to cover up its involvement in the burglary, it led to a significant constitutional crisis. Tapes discovered during the investigation proved Nixon’s complicity in the cover-up, leading to erosion of public faith in his leadership.
Nixon’s initial successes—ending American involvement in Vietnam and establishing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—were overshadowed by this scandal, which resulted in Nixon becoming the first and only president to resign from office. The Watergate scandal thus serves as a critical reminder of the importance of transparency, accountability, and integrity in leadership.
Herbert Hoover and the Great Depression
Herbert Hoover’s presidency is inexorably linked to the Great Depression. Prior to his presidency, Hoover was considered one of the most capable men in America, given his success as a mining engineer, businessman, and head of the U.S. Food Administration. However, his presidency began just months before the Wall Street Crash of 1929, which triggered the Great Depression.
His response to the crisis is often seen as inadequate and misguided. He believed in ‘rugged individualism’ and was reluctant to have the federal government intervene directly in the economy. As a result, he was seen as indifferent to the suffering of millions of Americans, although he did eventually take measures, such as creating the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, to combat the economic downturn.
His lack of decisive and effective action and his inability to communicate empathetically with the American public during a time of severe crisis significantly undermined his presidency and tarnished his legacy.
Ranking the best and worst U.S. Presidents can be a contentious task, given the range of historical contexts, the complexity of the challenges they faced, and the subjective lenses through which their legacies are viewed. Leaders like Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Franklin D. Roosevelt consistently rank as the best for their ability to navigate the nation through monumental crises and for the significant policy shifts they enacted. Conversely, presidents such as James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, and Warren G. Harding are often deemed the worst due to their inability to prevent or manage major conflicts and scandals effectively.
However, it’s important to remember that these rankings, while instructive, are not definitive. They are often fluid, shifting with historical perspective and societal evolution. Each president’s legacy is a reflection of the times they governed, their leadership abilities, and the lasting impact of their decisions. These rankings serve as a starting point for deeper discussions and explorations about the nature of leadership, the presidency, and the nation’s complex history.
We should view each presidency with nuance, considering the broader historical context, societal values of the time, and the unique challenges each leader faced. Regardless of their rankings, every president has left their mark on the American narrative, shaping and being shaped by the times they served in. It is through understanding their successes and failures that we gain a richer understanding of our nation’s past and insights into its future.