From Herbert Hoover’s mishandling of the Great Depression to George W. Bush’s unpopular war in Iraq, go inside the shocking stories of some of America’s worst-ranking presidents.
Ever since George Washington first took the oath of office in 1789, scores of men have followed in his footsteps. But not all of America’s presidents have left their terms with a glowing reputation. A number of these leaders have been harshly judged by history for their scandals, political decisions, inaction in the face of crises, and even for dying too quickly. And some have even been called the worst presidents in American history.
Many of them, like Franklin Pierce, Millard Fillmore, and James Buchanan, either fanned the flames of conflict in the pre-Civil War years or stood by as tension built between the North and the South. Others, like Warren G. Harding and Richard Nixon, are remembered for their scandals. And one president, William Henry Harrison, routinely tops the list of America’s worst presidents simply because he died just 31 days into his administration.
Historians judge that these men failed in different ways, but they all left a similar mark on American history as some of the country’s most unpopular presidents. Learn more about them in the photo gallery below.
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William Henry Harrison
William Henry Harrison, who became president in 1841, is often considered one of the country’s worst leaders simply because he didn’t survive long enough to get anything done in office.Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images
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William Henry Harrison
A military officer nicknamed “Old Tippecanoe” for his defeat of the Native American Shawnees in 1811 at the Battle of Tippecanoe, Harrison fell ill shortly after his inauguration in March 1841.Kean Collection/Getty Images
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William Henry Harrison
He died on April 4, 1841, just 31 days after his inauguration, earning himself the dubious honors of having the shortest presidency, and being the first U.S. president to die in office.Public Domain
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John Tyler, William Henry Harrison’s vice president who became president after Harrison’s death in 1841, is considered one of America’s worst presidents for a number of reasons. Public Domain
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An ardent defender of states’ rights, Tyler turned his back on his Whig Party as president and refused to endorse their ideas, like having a national bank. Most of his Cabinet resigned, the Whigs expelled him from his party, and Congress introduced the first presidential impeachment resolution in American history against Tyler (though it went nowhere).
Lacking his party’s support, Tyler ran as a third-party candidate in 1844, but then eventually supported the Democrat James K. Polk to deny the Whigs a victory.
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But Tyler is also considered one of America’s worst presidents for his actions related to the Civil War. Though he initially attempted to slow the country’s march toward violence following the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln, Tyler eventually threw his support behind the Confederacy and voted for his home state of Virginia to secede. When he died in 1862, his coffin was draped in a Confederate flag.Public Domain
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Like John Tyler, Millard Fillmore became president following the death of his predecessor, in this case Zachary Taylor.
His presidency, from 1850 to 1853, is mostly remembered for how it helped lay the foundation for the Civil War.
Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
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That’s because Fillmore, a Whig, threw his support behind the Compromise of 1850. This law allowed California to enter the Union as a free state, allowed Utah and New Mexico to decide on the slavery question for themselves, and defined the boundaries of Texas.Public Domain
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The Compromise of 1850 also included the Fugitive Slave Act. This controversial law required U.S. citizens to help capture any enslaved people who were trying to escape to freedom. It also authorized local governments to return enslaved people to their slaveholders.
Though Fillmore’s support of the bill may have averted an immediate war, it only delayed the eventual outbreak of violence.
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Like his predecessor Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce is considered one of the worst presidents in American history because of his actions before the outbreak of the Civil War.Public Domain
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After he became president in 1853, Pierce supported the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which struck down an earlier law banning slavery in northern territories and allowed new territories to decide if they would permit slavery.Public Domain
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Kansas was split between allowing and banning slavery, leading to a proliferation of activists arguing for both sides — sometimes violently.
The debate highlighted the deep divisions in the country and even bled into Congress, where pro-slavery South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks infamously beat anti-slavery Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner with his cane in the Senate Chamber in 1856.
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But despite the actions of Tyler, Fillmore, and Pierce, the blame for the Civil War is generally placed on James Buchanan, who regularly tops lists about America’s worst presidents. Public Domain
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Even before coming into power in 1857, Buchanan supported the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Dred Scott Decision — which stated that African Americans could not be citizens of the United States and that the phrase “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence did not apply to Black people — because he thought it might resolve the slavery question. But that wasn’t the only controversial thing that Buchanan did.Public Domain
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As his presidency continued, Buchanan continually appeased pro-slavery politicians. And when his successor, Abraham Lincoln, was elected in 1860, Buchanan did next to nothing to stop Southern states from seceding.
He’s remembered today both for the corruption rife in his administration and for his poor decisions in the face of the looming Civil War.
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Like James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson often tops the list of America’s worst presidents. Many historians judge Johnson harshly for his management of the country following Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and the tumultuous ending of the Civil War in 1865.Public Domain
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Lincoln’s vice president at the time of his assassination, Johnson was a Southerner who’d remained loyal to the Union. Yet he clashed repeatedly with the Republicans in Congress, fighting with them over how to proceed with Reconstruction after the Civil War.Public Domain
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Johnson opposed the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill, the Civil Rights Act of 1866, and the Fourteenth Amendment, which granted citizenship to formerly enslaved people. Because of his divisive and stubborn attitude, many historians believe that Johnson can be blamed for Reconstruction’s eventual failure. Public Domain
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Warren G. Harding
Of all the politicians who are frequently mentioned among America’s worst presidents, Warren G. Harding might be the only one to actually agree with that title. Harding once described himself as “a man of limited talents” and even reportedly said, “I am not fit for this office and should never have been here.”Public Domain
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Warren G. Harding
Harding was ushered toward the presidency in 1921 by Republican bosses and supporters because he was so inoffensive and because he “looked like a president.” Once in office, however, Harding seemed unable to rein in the rampant corruption of his administration, which eventually exploded publicly in the Teapot Dome scandal. Then, the former Secretary of the Interior, Albert Fall, was revealed to have been accepting bribes from oil companies in exchange for the right to drill on federal land.Public Domain
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Warren G. Harding
Harding, however, missed much of the fallout of the scandal. He died in 1923 of heart failure.
Today, Harding is remembered best for the corruption in his administration, the many affairs that he conducted while in office, and his enthusiasm for cigars, golf, and poker.
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Before he became president, Herbert Hoover was considered the “most useful American citizen now alive” for his role as a humanitarian in World War I. But today, he is remembered as one of the country’s worst leaders for how he handled the Great Depression. Public Domain
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About a year after he won the presidency in 1928, the stock market crashed and the Great Depression began. But Hoover seemed unable to rise to the moment. While he expressed sympathy for newly impoverished people, he insisted that local governments must take care of unemployed Americans. Many viewed him as callous and uncaring, and homeless encampments across the country infamously became known as “Hoovervilles.”Public Domain
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Hoover, seen here with his wife Lou, was widely viewed to have mishandled the Great Depression and ultimately lost his reelection campaign to Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932.Public Domain
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By the time Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968, he already had a long and controversial political career in the House, the Senate, and as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s vice president. His presidency would be no less polarizing, and Nixon would leave office in 1974 as the first — and only — president to resign from office. White House Photos/Getty Images
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Though Nixon enjoyed numerous political triumphs, including a successful 1972 trip to China, the so-called Watergate scandal would eventually be his undoing. That same year, burglars connected to his reelection committee were caught trying to bug the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. Don Carl STEFFEN/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
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Though no definitive proof has been uncovered that Nixon ordered the break-in, the president did participate in the cover-up. In August 1974, as it became clear that Congress would impeach him, Nixon decided to resign from the presidency instead of standing trial.Bettmann/Getty Images
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George W. Bush
George W. Bush, whose presidency lasted from 2001 until 2009, oversaw some of the most transformative and volatile years in modern American history. Today, historians frequently rate Bush among the worst presidents. Public Domain
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George W. Bush
Much of Bush’s legacy is defined by his reaction to the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, which killed 2,977 innocent people in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C. Though Bush enjoyed international support for invading Afghanistan, where the perpetrators of the attack were believed to live, he fatefully chose to expand the conflict to Iraq, pulling the United States into two long and costly wars. Eric Draper/The White House/Getty Images
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George W. Bush
Many historians also critique Bush’s lackluster response to calamitous events like Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Great Recession. By the time he left office, his approval rating was about 22 percent, making him one of the nation’s least popular departing presidents of all time.JEFF HAYNES/AFP via Getty Images
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Who Were The Worst U.S. Presidents In History — And What Made Them So Bad?
The Worst Presidents Of The 19th Century
Many of the men featured in the photo gallery above are considered to be some of America’s worst presidents because of their inaction or poor decisions in the 19th century as the country hurtled toward the Civil War.
Then, deep divisions between North and South, and between free states and slave states, threatened to plunge the nation into an armed conflict. But many presidents twiddled their thumbs or even exacerbated the tension. Take John Tyler, who became president in 1841 following the sudden death of William Henry Harrison, which happened just 31 days into Harrison’s term.
GraphicaArtis/Getty ImagesJohn Tyler was an unpopular president, but history has judged him especially harshly for his actions after his term.
Pushed into power, Tyler advocated for states’ rights, even as his fellow Whigs in Congress tried to enact policies like a national bank. He elicited such ire from his party that they expelled him and introduced a resolution to impeach him (though it went nowhere). But Tyler’s animosity with his party isn’t the only reason why he’s often seen as one of the worst presidents.
Following Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860, Tyler initially tried to broker peace between the North and South. But once it became clear that Southern states would secede, the former president threw his weight behind the Confederacy. He voted for secession in his home state of Virginia, and, after he died in 1862, his coffin was draped in a Confederate flag.
Before long, The New York Times foreshadowed Tyler’s future unpopularity after his death when the newspaper called him “the most unpopular public man that had ever held any office in the United States.”
But though Tyler and other unpopular 19th-century presidents have been judged for their inability to avert the Civil War, low-ranking 20th-century presidents are better remembered for their scandals and unpopular politics.
Unpopular Presidents Of The 20th Century
Some 20th-century presidents, like Richard Nixon and Warren G. Harding, are often considered among America’s worst presidents because of the scandals that rocked their administrations while they were in office.
Indeed, Harding is perhaps best remembered for the Teapot Dome scandal in the early 1920s, when the former Secretary of the Interior, Albert Fall, accepted bribes from oil companies in exchange for the right to drill on federal land. The president is reputed to have said that he had “no trouble with my enemies” but his friends “keep me walking the floor nights.”
Hulton Archive/Getty ImagesWarren G. Harding and his wife in 1921.
About half a century later, Richard Nixon shocked the nation by resigning amidst the Watergate scandal. Then, burglars connected to Nixon’s reelection committee were caught trying to bug the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. Though there’s no definitive proof that Nixon ordered the break-in, he did cover it up, and he decided to resign rather than face an impeachment trial.
Other presidents from modern history, like Herbert Hoover and George W. Bush, have been judged for the questionable political decisions that they made. Hoover became known for mishandling the Great Depression. And Bush has been critiqued for his unpopular war in Iraq, for his response to Hurricane Katrina, and for his leadership during the Great Recession.
One informal survey of 109 historians even showed that 61 percent of them thought that Bush might be remembered as the worst American president of all time, according to the History News Network.
But you can judge for yourself. Look through some of the worst-ranking American presidents in the gallery above, and see who you think might be the most flawed leader who ever set foot in the Oval Office.