The Worst Presidents

Another “Presidents’ Day”, and another couple of days of work for Washington and Lincoln impersonators. Usually, we only pay attention to the best presidents at this time; in addition to Washington and Lincoln, there might be some nods to Jefferson and both Roosevelts.

But I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about the presidents at the other end of the scale, at least accorrding to the people who rank them. Andrew Johnson (#17) only got the office after Lincoln’s assassination; he wasn’t elected to the job. And there was going to be a brutal fight over Reconstruction anyway. So we can give him a charitable nod and move on. George W. Bush (#43) often comes down near the bottom; I will be charitable as well and say that he’s too recent for us to have a proper historical perspective. And he did manage to serve two full terms…

That leaves Franklin Pierce (#14), James Buchanan (#15), and Warren G. Harding (#29). Why are they at the bottom of the list? What did they do – or fail to do – that lands them among the Worst Presidents?

Franklin Pierce (1804-1869, served 1853-1857) began his political career in the New Hampshire state legislature. After a few years, he was elected to Congress as a Representative, and then Senator. Known as a “man about town”, he became an alcoholic. In 1934, he married Jane Means Appleton, who dried him out and convinced him to retire from the Senate and move back home to New Hampshire, where he became an attorney and joined the temperance movement.

After distinguished service in the Mexican-American War, he returned to politics, becoming the leader of New Hampshire’s Democratic Party. He found himself being nominated for president in 1952 as a compromise candidate; the Democrats were looking for a pro-slavery Northerner, and he fit the bill. Pierce was hesitant to run, knowing that his wife hated living in Washington DC, but not wanting to jeopardize his career in the Democratic Party, he accepted. The opposing Whigs nominated General Winfield Scott, Pierce’s former commander. With the platforms of the parties being extremely similar, the election came down to the personalities of the candidates. Pierce didn’t do much direct campaigning, but Scott did. Scott turned out to be an awful public speaker, and he couldn’t rally the many factions in the Whig Party behind their platform. Pierce won in a landslide.

Then it all went to hell.

Two weeks after the election, the Pierce family was in a train accident. Their only remaining son (two other children had already succumbed to illness) died in front of Pierce, while he and Jane escaped unharmed. That destroyed his spirit. With Jane staying at their home in New Hampshire, and his Vice-President, Rufus King, dying a few weeks after the Inauguration, Pierce was alone.

Things were fairly stable in his early presidency, with no major crises. Then it came time to start considering admitting Kansas and Nebraska as states. Pierce was pressured to sign the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which left the matter of whether they would enter as slave or free states up to the territories themselves. It was the wrong decision (though to be fair, in the years leading up to the Civil War, almost any decision involving slavery was going to be wrong).

“Bloody Kansas” cost him the renomination in 1856. He spent his post-presidency traveling with his wife and dabbling in politics, mostly through writing and hob-nobbing with other political figures. After his wife died in 1863, he started drinking again. His health worsened, and he pretty much drank himself to death in 1869.

James Buchanan (1791-1868, served 1857-1861) began his political career in 1814, when he won a seat in the Pennsylvania state legislature. He slowly but steadily moved up in the world, to the House of Representatives and then Senate, with stops along the way as special envoy to Russia and Secretary of State. After losing the 1852 presidential nomination to Pierce, the new president gave him the post of minster to England.

Being overseas meant Buchanan wasn’t involved in the debacle of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, so it was easy enough for him to win the Democratic nomination for president in 1856. With the Whigs divided over slavery, and the new Republican Party not yet strong enough, he won easily. Hoping that the slavery issue could be settled by compromise, he staffed his cabinet with both Northerners and Southerners, and vowed to respect the result in a legal case involving slavery that was currently before the Supreme Court.

The “Dred Scott Decision” was announced two days after Buchanan’s inauguration. Reaffirming the rights of slave owners, the South loved it as much as the North hated it. Things rapidly spiraled out of control. Armed conflict broke out with Mormon settlers in Utah. The Panic of 1857 hit in the late summer. Kansas was still bleeding, and Buchanan fought openly with Sen. Stephen Douglas over the territory’s statehood.

When Douglas campaigned to get reappointed to the Senate in 1858 (his opponent was Abraham Lincoln, the pair faced off in a lengthy series of public debates as part of the campaign), Buchanan used a network of federal patronage appointees in Illinois to deliberately sabotage Douglas’ campaign. It didn’t work, and the Democratic party fractured.

The Republican Party had its act together in 1858, and they won control of the House of Representatives. They proceeded to block most of Buchanan’s agenda, and even considered impeachment.

By 1860, it was obvious that the Democrats were utterly split along sectional lines. When Lincoln won the Republican nomination, the secession of Southern states was likely. It would have taken a master statesman to prevent a war, and Buchanan wasn’t one.

When the war broke out, Buchanan was pilloried in the media for having caused it. He tried defending himself through letters and a memoir, to no avail. He took ill in May of 1868, and died of respiratory failure a few weeks later.

Warren G. Harding (1865-1923, served 1921-1923) was a successful newspaper editor and publisher who was encouraged by his wife to enter politics. He became a Republican and had a modest career in Ohio state government. In 1914, he won a seat in the US Senate thanks in part to his network of connections in the Ohio Republican party. In 1920, he won the Republican nomination for president in the legendary “smoke-filled room” when no other nominee could muster the majority of delegates.

Taking a pro-business stance in the campaign, he vowed a “return to normalcy” after the Great War and promised to put the brakes on the Progressive agenda. He won in the largest landslide up to that time.

As president, he confessed to being unprepared and overwhelmed by the job, preferring to delegate a lot to his cabinet and staff. He made a number of excellent cabinet appointments (Charles Evans Hughes as Secretary of State, Herbert Hoover for Commerce, Andrew Mellon for Treasury) – but also a number of terrible ones. He can take credit for a couple of accomplishments, like the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921, which streamlined the federal budget approval process and created the General Accounting Office. But by 1923, rumors of corruption in the “Ohio Gang” were keeping him walking the floors at night.

On a speaking trip out west in the summer of 1923, he took ill and died from a massive heart attack on August 2.

After his death, all the scandals and corruption came out. The biggest / worst was the “Teapot Dome” scandal, where Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall took bribes to arrange the lease of oil reserves to private industry. Fall went to prison in 1931, becoming the first cabinet officer to go to jail for crimes committed during his tenure. A number of other people in the administration did time as well, indelibly tainting the Harding administration.

What is it about these three that place them at the very bottom of the rankings?

In the 1850s, it would have taken a world-class statesman to deal with the issue of slavery without starting a war. Pierce and Buchanan weren’t even good, nevermind “world-class”. The best anyone could reasonably expect from a president would be to kick the issue down to the next president. Had either of them served in a more tranquil time, they’d probably have turned out better. Harding’s problems weren’t really his own doing; none of the corruption was ever connected to him.

It is fair to say that after the death of his son, Pierce lost all interest in being president. Buchanan’s fight with Stephen Douglas betrayed a petty and vindictive streak in his personality. And Harding’ s term is a reminder that the president must eventually take the responsibility for the actions of his appointees, for good or ill.

So if you don’t want to go down in history as one of the worst presidents, you should take an active interest in the job and its responsibilities, avoid using your power in petty disputes, and make sure you choose reasonably trustworthy and competent people for your staff…..

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