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?