The Worst Thing Every President Has Done

Last week, on Election Day, I found myself in a long Facebook comment thread about the virtues of voting. In it, someone said, “We have perhaps never had a president that has not committed…great acts of evil.” Of course, my first thought on reading that was That sounds like a fun game, and I decided to make a list of the worst* thing every president has done.

*The word “evil,” is of course loaded with all sorts of moral and metaphysical implications, so I’ve slightly reframed it into the “worst” acts every president has done. To be sure, many of these are clearly evil, but I wanted to include every president, and it’s hard to find something really “evil” that, say, William Henry Harrison did.

A quick note: First of all, I’m only including things they did as president. So the fact that Thomas Jefferson probably raped his slaves doesn’t count, though obviously that’s pretty bad. Secondly, I’m not a presidential historian, so my knowledge of some presidents is pretty limited. I welcome input on events I may have forgotten or never learned about in the first place. Lastly, this list is obviously subjective, based on my own moral judgment. As such, it’s weighted against things I find truly immoral, which usually involve the government killing or imprisoning people. Again, though, I welcome disagreement.

And now, the list:

George Washington: Offering money for arms and food to French planters in Haiti in order to suppress the slave rebellion.

John Adams: Signing the Alien and Sedition Acts.

Thomas Jefferson: Breaking a treaty with the Cherokee nation that guaranteed the tribe lands in Georgia, effectively establishing the policy of “Indian removal.”

James Madison: Vetoing the charter of the Second National Bank, leaving America unable to fund the War of 1812.

James Monroe: Ordering Andrew Jackson to fight the Seminoles and occupy Florida without Congressional approval.

John Quincy Adams: The “corrupt bargain,” in which he made Henry Clay his Secretary of State in exchange for Congress electing him President.

Andrew Jackson: Ignoring the Supreme Court’s Worcester v. Georgia ruling and beginning the process of Indian removal.

Martin Van Buren: Presiding over the “Trail of Tears.”

William Henry Harrison: Forgetting to wear a coat in the rain, setting a bad example for generations of kids.

John Tyler: Pursuing the annexation of Texas, setting up the Mexican-American War.

James K. Polk: Starting the Mexican-American War.

Zachary Taylor: Eating too many cherries.

Millard Fillmore: Signing the Compromise of 1850, which included the infamous Fugitive Slave Act.

Franklin Pierce: Supporting and signing the Kansas-Nebraska Act/presiding over “Bleeding Kansas” sectarian conflicts.

James Buchanan: Pressuring the Supreme Court to issue a more “comprehensive” ruling in the Dred Scott decision, and persuading Associate Justice Robert Cooper Grier, from Pennsylvania, to vote with the Southern justices.

Abraham Lincoln: Suspending habeas corpus in order to imprison Civil War protesters.

Andrew Johnson: Mishandling Reconstruction, allowing most Southern states to pass “Black Codes” and opposing efforts to assist freedmen.

Ulysses S. Grant: Presiding over probably the most corrupt administration in American history.

Rutherford B. Hayes: Using federal troops to put down the Great Railroad Strike of 1877.

James Garfield: Not giving Charles Guiteau a job, am I right?

Chester A. Arthur: Signing the Chinese Exclusion Act, a ban on Chinese immigration that would last 10 years.

Grover Cleveland: Using federal troops to break the Pullman Strike of 1894.

Benjamin Harrison: Sending federal troops to disarm the Lakota Sioux in what turned into the Wounded Knee Massacre.

William McKinley: Beginning American imperial expansion in the Pacific, annexing Hawaii and the Philippines.

Teddy Roosevelt: Issuing the Roosevelt Corollary to justify American military intervention throughout Latin America.

William Howard Taft: Intervention and occupation of Nicaragua.

Woodrow Wilson: Pushing for the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act, and using them to imprison World War I opponents like Eugene V. Debs.

Warren G. Harding: Appointing Charles R. Forbes Director of the Veterans’ Bureau, and issuing executive orders that allowed Forbes to embezzle hundreds of millions of dollars from World War I veteran funds.

Calvin Coolidge: Signing the Immigration Act of 1924 to limit immigration from Eastern Europe.

Herbert Hoover: Authorizing Mexican Repatriation, a forced removal of Mexican immigrants, in response to the Great Depression.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Ordering the internment of over 100,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II.

Harry S. Truman: Dropping two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing as many as 200,000 Japanese civilians.

Dwight D. Eisenhower: Authorizing the CIA’s overthrow of the Iranian government.

John F. Kennedy: Authorizing, and then botching, the Bay of Pigs Invasion of Cuba.

Lyndon Johnson: Escalating American involvement in Vietnam.

Richard Nixon: The secret bombings of Cambodia and Laos.

Gerald Ford: Pardoning Richard Nixon.

Jimmy Carter: Mishandling the Iranian Revolution and the Iran hostage crisis.

Ronald Reagan: Ignoring the national AIDS epidemic.

George Bush: Authorizing military intervention in Panama.

Bill Clinton: Bombing a pharmaceutical factory in the Sudan.

George W. Bush: Invading and occupying Iraq.

Barack Obama: Expanding the drone war, specifically the killing of two American citizens without due process.

***

Before analyzing the list, I’d like to comment on Ronald Reagan, for whom I had the most difficulty deciding. Reagan, of course, had a lot of controversial policies: Grenada, busting unions, Iran-Contra, etc. And, in general, I tried to stay clear of crimes of inaction, since they are harder to identify. But two things make Reagan hard to judge: First, much of the criticism of him comes from simple policy disputes. There’s a difference between saying something is “evil”—like internment camps or killing civilians—and saying it is simply a bad idea for policy reasons, like lowering taxes or increasing military spending. Secondly, Reagan’s inaction on AIDS was certainly by choice. He was given opportunities to speak out on the issue and ignored them for years. When he finally did speak on it, it was to disagree with the CDC’s report that children couldn’t contract HIV from person-to-person contact. He repeatedly denied requests for funding research on the disease, though it was killing people at a growing rate. Even if you support low taxes and no air-traffic control unions, it’s hard to defend that inaction.

As for the list in general, it seems to give a very skewed, though interesting, perspective on American history. Judging presidents based on the worst things they did is obviously not the best way to judge them. Someone like Richard Nixon—for whom there are literally dozens of viable choices for Worst Thing He Did—does not really seem much worse than Eisenhower on this list. Similarly, the presidents for whom it is the hardest to come up with something (excepting those like Harrison, Taylor, and Garfield, who simply weren’t in office long enough to do much damage) represent an eclectic bunch: I found James Madison, John Quincy Adams, William Howard Taft, and George H.W. Bush to be the “best” presidents by this measure. Not exactly the stuff of Mount Rushmore…

Conversely, many of the worst things on this list come from people who are often considered to have been good or even among the best Presidents: FDR and internment camps, Truman and atom bombs, Lincoln/Wilson and the imprisonment of war opponents, etc. Of course, both of these facts—their high regard and their controversial decisions—probably stem from being wartime presidents.

Nevertheless, I think the list does offer a fair overview of American history. If you look at common crimes on the list, they tend to coalesce around issues of Native American policy, slavery, and military intervention. Obviously, these are three of the most important aspects of American history. You can also chart the gradual expansion of American military power—while early uses of forces were primarily directed at Native American tribes, they eventually moved to East Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.

Of course, I can imagine a list that looks completely different from mine, particularly if you’re more forgiving of American military aggression. Surely this only scratches the surface of terrible things done by American presidents. What did I overlook?

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14 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Douglas on November 13, 2012 at 12:42 PM

    Great list! I’ll definitely be back when I have more time.

    For George W. Bush, why not the signing of the Patriot Act? Not sure if I agree with this, but I think there’s a claim that could be made that while the invasion is a more imminent evil, the Patriot Act will outlive any military conflict and therefore do more ultimate evil.

    Also, I have no source for this other than my high school history teacher, but apparently the U-2 cover-up incident under Dwight Eisenhower was the first time any president admitted to publicly lying while in office. Undoubtedly presidents had lied before, but this was an embarrassing new low that arguably degraded the integrity–perceived or real–of that office. Don’t know if that’s truly worse than your example, but an interesting aside.

    Reply

    • Posted by John S on November 13, 2012 at 3:43 PM

      Well, for Bush, suffice to say that I had a cornucopia of evil deeds to choose from. I see your point about the Patriot Act, but I still probably give the edge to Iraq, which was completely unnecessary (unlike, arguably, a lot of the Patriot Act) and totally disastrous.

      That’s an interesting point about Eisenhower, but it seems more like a symbolic thing than a tangible evil. It’s interesting to consider Eisenhower: He’s not usually named as one of the most important presidents of the 20th century, unlike FDR or Reagan, and people tend to remember him as a benign old man who presided over time of peace and prosperity. But he’s administration was, in many ways, the definitive one of the postwar era, representing a turning point in so many things, from the national security state, to the role of the military, to civil rights, and the New Deal. That doesn’t really have anything to do with your point, but it struck me as interesting…

      Reply

  2. Posted by Douglas on November 13, 2012 at 12:46 PM

    Also, I would be remiss not to question the exclusion of FDR’s delayed response to the Holocaust, though again I’m not necessarily disagreeing with your choice.

    Reply

    • Posted by John S on November 13, 2012 at 4:00 PM

      One thing I had to consider in this list was my own beliefs about the role of the US military. Such as, when should it intervene on behalf of other nations? The Panama example for George Bush was tricky: Manuel Noriega was basically an autocrat (though one America had long supported) and had been defeated in an election he subsequently had voided. Did that justify American involvement? Of course, the issue is more complicated, since the US had already been involved anyway, and was mainly pursuing its own interests, as well as a failed drug war, in Panama, but, in general, is it the role of the US to support democratically elected leaders elsewhere? I would say no, though this would obviously lead to some hard choices.

      Similarly, I’m not sure what FDR really should or could have done about the Holocaust. Obviously, there are plagues on his record, like refusing to grant asylum to passengers on the St. Louis. He could have tried to relax immigration standards, or speak out about the atrocities earlier, but it’s possible that this would have engendered backlash and even resistance to joining the war, if the perception was that it was a war to liberate Jews. Jews were not exactly super popular in America back then (plus, beliefs in a worldwide Jewish conspiracy were much more commonplace, and doubtlessly would have been inflamed by a rise in Jewish immigration during the Great Depression…).

      I agree that FDR’s response was still pretty shameful, but this is why crimes of inaction are so hard to judge. The internment of the Japanese, though, was a clear and definitively evil step.

      Reply

  3. very interesting to me and my own personal belief that 90% of politicians are sociopaths…i like to blame bush for everyone i know losing half of their wealth and even worse for leaning on the podium and laughing ,like he hadn’t a care in the world, when terrorists kidnapped and were going to behead an american.

    Reply

  4. Posted by george on June 27, 2013 at 11:38 PM

    Sad a lot of Americans dont know this. Then they wonder why other countries hate them, for example Iran, the coups created a deep resentment towards the American government still seen today. Worst part this is not something they teach in school. We bring peace, understanding and tolerance through education. Ignoring facts and promoting war will never bring us together. I have hope for a better future though.

    Reply

  5. Posted by christopher on July 11, 2013 at 11:43 AM

    don’t forget Eisenhower’s secret treaties with the aliens. im kidding of corse, but imagine if you had to go through all the conspiracy theories associated with the presidency, all the freakishly evil claims.

    Reply

  6. Posted by Yadi Arteaga on November 16, 2013 at 11:11 PM

    Thank you for adding this list. I really needed this fory essay that I have to write. The essays that I have to write about are of the worst thing america has ever done and I think that this shows a lot of the isues that the presedents have done. The reason I am writing this essay is not only because of some dumb homework assignment I was given. It was because I want to prove that I’m worth going to that trip to washington. But to be honest, even if I’m not going on that trip. I wouldn’t be sad or disappointed that I cant make that trip. But as long as I somehow show the shadows that the presedents were trying to hide behind the fellow americans lives, into the light. I’m glad.

    Anyway…..THANK YOU FOR YOUR INFORMATION THAT YOU GAVE ON THIS PAGE!!!!!

    Reply

    • Posted by Jay on February 17, 2014 at 6:11 PM

      You are aware the word “president’ is spelled correctly 16 times in the article and title above and 0 times in your post, correct?

      Also you should use items on the list as a springboard for your own research for your essay not as a primary source for the sake of your own education. That said, good luck.

      Reply

  7. Posted by Mason on April 23, 2014 at 1:22 AM

    Have you considered trying to make this “go viral” (ugh, I just wrote that) by serving it up on a site like BuzzFeed or something? No I don’t work for them, I honestly stumbled on this page with the idea to create a “meme” poster of each president, illustrating the horrible things each president has done. The end goal of this would have been to provide perspective.

    This was really fueled by people hating on our current president (and for good reasons) while seemingly not getting the bigger picture of the office of the president as a whole. I’d often thought that the job itself must really suck, as history does very little for your posterity and every single action you take is criticized to the ‘nth degree.

    Maybe people will be a bit more understanding, or at least think before making snap judgements…or maybe even researching things themselves and forming opinions of their own?

    *shrug*

    Reply

  8. “I found James Madison, John Quincy Adams, William Howard Taft, and George H.W. Bush to be the “best” presidents by this measure. Not exactly the stuff of Mount Rushmore…”

    I actually do rank Bush Senior and John Quincy Adams among the “best” Presidents, not so much because they were great, but because I hate most of them (William Henry Harrison is in my top 10), usually for the reasons you listed. James Madison on the other hand ranks among the worst for me. During the War of 1812 he came closer than any other president to destroying the US.

    “Conversely, many of the worst things on this list come from people who are often considered to have been good or even among the best Presidents: FDR and internment camps, Truman and atom bombs, Lincoln/Wilson and the imprisonment of war opponents, etc.”

    I actually do think Truman and Wilson were among the worst. I can understand bombing Hiroshima, although in hindsight one can easily see the Pandora’s Box it opened, but to nuke Nagasaki after Japan had already surrendered is just unforgivable. One could also question his role in starting the Cold War. Wilson’s misdeeds are too many to list, but I’ll try: He shut down anti-war movements through the Espionage Act and Sedition Act. This broadened during the Palmer Raids to include real and suspected anarchists and communists. His racist and imperialist views were not far removed from those of Hitler. He had more military interventions than any other President, to the point where it could be argued that he was America’s first Emperor, and many dictators rose to power in Latin America consequently, the most famous being Batista and the Duvaliers. His image as a model Progressive is largely propaganda. He openly targeted and silenced minorities in the government, repeatedly questioning the loyalty of immigrants, and indeed he instituted the policy of mandatory segregation in federal government jobs. He started the trend of appointing heads of major corporations to head agencies designed to regulate business, even privatizing the National Bank (renaming it the Federal Reserve). He encouraged a rebirth of the KKK. He opposed many of the Progressive changes that did occur during his tenure, most famously women being given the right to vote. He played a role in the Treaty of Versailles, which arguably led to WWII. I could go on but I think that’s enough for now.

    My top 10 Presidents could be divided into three groups of three, plus the last one:
    1. Abraham Lincoln-Ended slavery and kept the Union together.
    2. Franklin Delano Roosevelt-His New Deal helped end the great Depression and he led the nation through WWII
    3. George Washington-Anyone with the willpower to be offered Kingship and refuse commands an enormous amount of respect.

    These 3 all faced a unique crisis in American history, and all of them showed great leadership throughout. They were not perfect, but their misdeeds are either minor enough or understandable enough in the circumstances that I have no trouble proclaiming them the best.

    4. Thomas Jefferson-The Louisiana Purchase was the largest peaceful expansion of the United States in history, and he instituted the separation of church & state.
    5. Theodore Roosevelt-The first real Progressive president, successfully taking down many monopolies and passing the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act.
    6. John Fitzgerald Kennedy-He navigated his way through the Cuban Missile Crisis, he initiated the Space Race, and he proposed the Great Society and Civil Rights Act which Lyndon Johnson is often given credit for.

    These 3 are more questionable. All of them have major blemishes on their record-Thomas Jefferson passed the Embargo Act, leading to the War of 1812. Theodore Roosevelt held many of the same racist and imperialist views as Wilson, though he was at least relatively diplomatic about it. John F. Kennedy authorized the Bay of Pigs invasion and continued the Vietnam War. Despite this, I think they all did more good for the nation and its inhabitants than bad.

    7. James Monroe-Because of the Monroe Doctrine. His presidency was known as “the Era of Good Feelings” so he must have been doing something right.
    8. George Bush Senior-Easily the best since Kennedy. He had a modicum of integrity not found in Lyndon Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, his son, or Obama, while at the same time having a degree of competence not found in Ford, Carter, or George W. Bush.
    9. John Quincy Adams-Not because he accomplished anything (he didn’t), but because every other remaining option is intolerable.

    These 3 aren’t really on here for their own accomplishments, but because they didn’t do anything really horrible.

    And finally, the one president who did no damage whatsoever:

    10. William Henry Harrison

    Common choices I didn’t pick:
    John Adams-see below.
    James Madison-see above.
    Andrew Jackson-He ordered the Trail of Tears. He killed 500, 000 people. Any argument that this was a product of the times ignores that this was in direct violation of the orders of the Supreme Court, which had already declared it illegal.
    James K. Polk-see below
    Woodrow Wilson-for all the reasons listed above and more.
    Harry Truman-see above and below.
    Dwight Eisenhower-He started the trend of using the CIA to screw around in other countries and prop up anticommunist dictatorships. You mentioned his propping up the Shah, but there was also his intervention in Guatemala, which he lied about the causes of, claiming there was evidence that Guatemala had ties with the Soviet Union, which searches found to be nonexistent.
    Lyndon Johnson-His escalation of the Vietnam War. Hundreds of thousands of innocent people killed for a war that ultimately ended in failure. He was also a complete douchebag by all accounts.
    Ronald Reagan-for too many reasons to list, from the Iran-Contra Affair to Reaganomics and the record debt levels to his refusal to speak on the matter of AIDS as you mentioned.
    Bill Clinton-Don’t make me laugh.

    The 10 worst are probably, in no particular order (aside from the top 3 which I’m pretty sold on):

    1. James K. Polk-He started arguably the only war of conquest in American history. I choose him as the worst because a) I see his presidency as having no real major high point (unlike for instance Andrew Jackson who gave the poor the right to vote), b) he didn’t have any major event during his tenure that would have made it difficult not to screw up (unlike say George W. Bush, who had to deal with the aftermath of 9/11), and c) his misdeeds were of malice, not inaction (unlike for example the traditional choice for worst president, James Buchanan).
    2. Woodrow Wilson-For all the reasons listed above and more. He gets a tiiiiiny bit more leeway than Polk because he had a crisis to deal with, but just barely.
    3. James Buchanan-He supported slavery and did absolutely nothing about secession.
    4. Barack Obama-Some of the measures he is taking in the War on Terror, which should never have even been started, are absurd. The NDAA alone is enough to justify his being here.
    5. George W. Bush-For too many reasons to list.
    6. Franklin Pierce-For the same reasons as Buchanan.
    7. Martin van Buren-He oversaw the Trail of Tears and did nothing about the Panic of 1837. I choose him instead of Jackson because he did no real good for America, while Jackson at least gave the poor the vote.
    8. William McKinley-Another racist and imperialist.
    9. Harry Truman-For reasons stated above. He remains low due to his expansion of FDR’s social programs and the fact that his misdeeds were a reaction to a crisis.
    10. John Adams-He passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, and he tried to make himself King.

    Common choices I didn’t pick:
    John Tyler, Andrew Johnson, Warren G. Harding, and Jimmy Carter-No particular reason, just none of them were really bad enough.
    Andrew Jackson-See van Buren.
    Millard Fillmore-He established trade with Japan, and he signed the Compromise of 1850 which delayed the Civil War.
    Ulysses S. Grant-In spite of the corruption of his administration, he got reconstruction back on track after Andrew Johnson fucked it up.
    Herbert Hoover-Some of the New Deal was actually his idea, he just didn’t have the charisma to get it through.
    Lyndon Johnson & Richard Nixon-In spite of Vietnam, Watergate, the bombing of Cambodia and Nixon’s role in the Red Scare, the Civil Rights Act and Great Society (signed into law by Johnson and expanded by Nixon) keep them off.
    Ronald Reagan-He managed to restore a degree of respect to the office after Nixon’s corruption and Carter’s incompetence had largely caused the American people to lose their faith in it.
    Bill Clinton-Don’t make me laugh.

    Reply

  9. Posted by Ilikkaman williams on February 2, 2016 at 9:39 PM

    Obama is the greatest disaster this country has ever seen. Getting in bed with our enemies and selling out this country to every shit hole in the world. Lied to American people over and over on anything and everything. Keeping your doctor. His grades. His citizenship. His religion. Obamacare. Making wallstreet richer off of fake money. Getting himself rich off the working class and minorities all while cheating them and enabling in chrony capitalism. I would need 3 more pages to list all the lies and deceit this pos in charge has done. He should be locked up for the evil he has brought upon this once great nation.

    Reply

  10. […] Sources: http://www.pasadenastarnews.com/, http://cosb.countyofsb.org/uploadedFiles/pwd/Water/msds.pdf, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RX3IOHpe6sY, https://npinopunintended.wordpress.com/2012/11/13/the-worst-thing-every-president-has-done/ […]

    Reply

  11. Posted by Erik on April 14, 2016 at 5:59 AM

    No offense meant, but it doesn’t seem like you did enough research on Texas and the Mexican-American War. Unlike Hawaii’s annexation, Texas’ annexation was fair and not very corrupt in its inception.

    1. Texas was an independent country based on the War for Indepdence there that saw Mexico’s President sign over Texas’ Indepdence after his capture and subsequent release. Texians wanted to be annexed by the United States for years and it was definitely a hot topic in the US.

    2. Mexico started the Mexican-American War by declaring it. They started it the U.S finished it. Secondly if it wasn’t for the Mexican-American War the United States wouldn’t have California, Arizona, Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada or Wyoming. So clearly Polk did the United States a huge favor, especially once you consider the fact that Gold was struck only months after the acquisition.

    Ronald’s “inaction on AIDS” is a really good criticism but I think a close second to Ron’s support of funding anti-Soviet Jihadist’s in Afghanistan that lead to the inevitable creation of Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden’s rise to prominence

    Bush’s worst thing is most certainly the Iraq War “big lie” in regards to the WMD’s and the subsequent fallout from that but his tax cuts that helped cause our Great Recession almost seems worse.

    Barrack Obama’s worst thing was being a far greater divider than the supposed unifier the country needed– fueling the fire so to speak– dividing Americans amongst racial, gender, and class lines during a time of economic turbulence and thereby creating a reverberating rift of racial, gender, and class resentment for decades to come. In addition to that he is also sitting President to a handful of foreign policy blunders that make George W seem brilliant. The next 50 years in American are going to be a very interesting.

    Reply

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