Wednesday, 15 July 2015

The three worst US Presidents of all time

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I often heard that Grant was the worst US President, or Buchanan or Andrew Johnson or Harding but none of these were the worst. The worst was George W Bush, very closely followed by Abraham Lincoln, closely followed by Wilson.

Bush squandered the US's moment as global hegemon, began a seemingly endless war in the Middle East and, by over-reacting, turned the September 11th murders into a triumph for the Islamists. Lincoln made war on his own people for the offence of wanting national self-determination. His legacy was an America embittered on geographical lines for a century and on racial lines till this day. Wilson's dire legacy is the break-up of Austria Hungary and the Second World War, though, to be fair, the latter would probably have happened even without his help.

Some old-fashioned people consider Hoover the worst, but in fact Hoover was better than but rather similar to Franklin Roosevelt, whom people rate very highly, or used to.

Hoover was not a laissez faire man like Coolidge. He effectively started the New Deal. Rexford Tugwell who helped invent the New Deal said: 
“We didn’t admit it at the time, but practically the whole New Deal was extrapolated from programs that Hoover started.” 
On the other hand, I doubt whether the New Deal under FDR was effective. Under FDR, unemployment averaged  18 % from 1933 to 1940. The policies of the British government during the depression, once considered a by-word in myopia, are now thought to have been more effective.

Someone recently said Tyler was the best. Perhaps. Though if I were Texan I would regret the annexation of Texas. As a free country Texas could have avoided the Civil War and avoid an awful lot of things that the North forced on the South from 1860 till the present day. But this was not a possibility, unfortunately for the Texans. Texas was broke by the time Tyler annexed it.

Truman was good but to rate him one has to decide whether he was right to wage the Cold War against Stalin and keep American troops in Europe. I have always been grateful for the troops but never sure the Cold War was necessary.


Hoover’s history of his times was published only fairly recently and blames FDR for much from prolonging the depression to Pearl Harbor and war with Germany. One of the very few reviews it got is here.


22 comments:

  1. With respect to Hoover, FDR and the Depression, there is a school of history that believes that the Depression hit and Hoover’s attempts at intervention made it worse. FDR, who branded Hoover as a reckless deficit spender, continued the policies that extened the Depression. I have read that other countries, including Germany, recovered faster than the U. S. It does seem that it took WWII to lift the U. S. out of the Depression. My personal feeling is that FDR’s greatest contribution was to keep the lid on things so as to avoid a drift into Communism or Fascism by making the people believe that Happy Days are here again. Some of the programs he initiated, such as Social Security, remain and continue to impact the country for better or worse. I believe that, had FDR not been elected to a third term his stature would be much more modest. Depending on who and what succeeded him his might even be regarded as a failed presidency. After eight years the country still had serious economic problems.

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  2. Abolition without the civil war would presumably have involved compensation. A recent TV programme in Britain put the figure paid to compensate British subjects who owned slaves in the West Indies etc, when slavery was abolished across the Empire in 1834, at the equivalent of £17 billion in today's money. The number of slaveowners in the then United States in 1860 was far greater, and I think (I may be wrong) the value of slaves in 1860 would have been judged greater than it was in 1834. Even if the South had agreed to abolition, which just wouldn't have happened, I don't think the money could have been found.

    In terms of states seceding, what about Slovenia and Croatia seceding from Yugoslavia in 1991? No-one, other than the government of what remained of Yugoslavia, seemed to consider that illegal, and there was worldwide outrage when Yugoslavia tried to force the seceded states back into the union.

    To get back to the point, I would definitely put Andrew Johnson as one of the three worst presidents. I think the way his administration handled Reconstruction was very poor, not to mention all the corruption issues. It's very hard to compare people in different times and different circumstances, though, whether you're talking about the best/worst kings or presidents ever or the best sports players ever! Different times, different issues.
    A.

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    1. Slaves were estimated to be worth $4 billion. The war cost the north at least $3 billion and presumably the South an equal amount. Madison earlier in the 19th century proposed buying them by selling public land, manumitting them and deporting them to Africa. Lincoln was also keen on persuading them to leave.

      America is not an old country - I think one can compare Washington and Kennedy - why not? Anyway it's an enjoyable parlour game for those who have parlours. Parlors for those in the USA.

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  3. I've read Confederate documents that replicate your position, stating it precisely. They did see Lincoln as very illiberal, as a capricious tyrant, even a monarch in all but name. The same as I understand it was said of FDR; and it is said of Obama today. What is most unusual and interesting about your position here (for me) is that you come to this debate on Lincoln from English high Tory assumptions, yet you reach the the same conclusion as contemporary enemies of Lincoln, the secessionists.

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  4. The rolling criteria for best/worst make ranking difficult, not to mention that each faced different challenges.

    If completing a campaign agenda and leaving the stage add points, then Polk was a good president, but not a memorable one.

    I believe it is too soon to reach a meaningful conclusion on G.W.Bush's legacy considering the financial crisis and 9/11, neither of his making and yet both still defining our present and future.

    Lincoln's election was an immediate cause-precedent to the Civil War, but the divisions and actions that caused it are clearly far deeper and more complex. He was consumed by that war and one can only speculate what might have been, had he lived longer. History has tended to attach events before and after to Lincoln's presidential legacy - he has been mythologized and demonized - in ways that color all judgments.

    The irony remains that while dedicated to preserving the union, Lincoln was in the event most divisive, and violent civil wars do not heal deep-seated divisions in any hurry. One could argue that Andrew Johnson inherited the nation at its most divided, and many have found it convenient for him to wear the dunce cap ever since.

    Do we give points for sticking to principles? If so, then we add points for Wilson's vision, but subtract them for implementation. John Adams had vision and was also stubborn, but unlike Wilson he was less convinced that he was up to the job and questioned himself constantly.

    Jefferson did not rank his own presidency as a major achievement, correctly I think, but if we offer a life-time achievement award, then he would be a finalist, notwithstanding his failings and contradictions.

    Ranking the best or worst stimulates conversation, but probably without a profound conclusion.

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  5. The blog is well written and argued (although I don't agree with it). Adrian G

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  6. I can only imagine what linclon endured emotionally determined to hold the union together. Had we failed, as a Virginian I would be a very different person. I would not view myself as a Citizen of the USA, my views on race and other issues would most likely be tainted by a prolonged history of slavery in my state. As has been stated this has really be interesting to speculate on.

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  7. If Lincoln had peacefully allowed the CSA to secede from the Union what do you suppose their fate would have been? Foreign invaders trying to subject them? Then perhaps other western states and territories would have chosen independence instead of being part of the USA. A fractured mess. No, Lincoln knew without a doubt that preservation of the Union was the most important issue. Yes, the cost in human life was horrific but compromise had failed and war was inevitable.

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    1. What would be so wrong had Western territories become independent countries, as Texas was - but I don't see this happening. In fact there is something to be said for the USA being a decentralised federation of states which had a common foreign policy and single market but were to a large extent independent. But I think you are arguing backwards. The civil war happened and you are looking for reasons why it was a good thing.

      I feel even now that the South might be happier on its own.

      I must say I think South Carolina is a lot to blame. South Carolina pushed the other states into secession and war - the South should not have seceded and remained in the USA to try to stymie Lincoln.

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    2. In 1970 1% of Virginians were born outside the USA, but by 2012, 1 in every 9 Virginians was foreign-born. The change is because of Ted Kennedy's immigration reform in 1965. The Hart–Celler Act. If Southerners decided their own immigration policy things might be different.

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    3. I agree that Lincoln did what he had to do to save the Union, which was his main objective during the first few years of the war. I still believe that every state should stay in the Union because no single state can support itself in all aspects of survival and succession.

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    4. Certainly he wanted to save the Union and he had good reasons but he would have been a great man had he put those reasons aside and let the South secede, thus avoiding a terrible war whose wounds have not healed yet.

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  8. I omitted to link to the article praising Tyler and presidents who did little. Here it is. http://watchdog.org/4698/nm-and-the-best-president-in-us-history-is-john-tyler-whaaat/

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  9. Truman was great, perhaps the greatest. Though I have not decided whether the Cold War as it was waged was necessary. George Kennan thought it wasn't. Eisenhower deserves much credit for nixing the idea of limited nuclear war - none for preventing us from toppling Nasser. That decision of Ike's led to Saddam and Gaddafi.

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    1. Herbert "The Forgotten Progressive" Hoover was awful - for exactly the opposite reasons the left claim (most noteably his fanatical efforts to keep up wage rates - in the face of a massive crash). As for Truman - he relied too much on the "Old China Hands" (most of whom were actually enemy agents) which led to the victory of Mao - the largest scale of mass murderer of all time (see the works of Frank Dikotter on that) and the threat from the PRC that the world now faces (the PRC regime has no real legitmacy - so it must expand or die). He also allowed the Soviets to develop nuclear weapns - that turned out O.K. (they were never used), but things could have turned out very differently.....

      Ike and John Foster Dulles - to Eden (and others - years after the event). "But why did you not go on?" Because you were constantly slagging us off in public, and did not even send a private message of support - how were we supposed to know you were just talking rubbish for the benefit of the 1956 Presidential campaign? Eden did not reply in these terms - but he should have.

      Paul Marks

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    2. Of course Dulles could have replied "I was ill - it was my deputy who denounced you".- but it was still squalid, an election campaign at home (I-must-seem-liberal) and the effort to try and woo Arab Nationalists as well (even though it was obvious 1956 that Nasser and the others were socialists who hated the United States - the Americans were still in "if we give them lots of money they will like us" mode).

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  10. No President, until the 1930s, accepted the word, or even its sense, of 'Democracy'. This word was bitterly divisive and was considered as tantamount to 'communism'. Lincoln, as we now all know, felt quite strongly about 'ownership' of an individual by another, his feelings though, about the negros, was commensurate with the feelings of the time. His ultimate stance reflected his desire to win, not his sentiments. Whilst the office of U.S. President has power, that of President of France has 'ultimate power' hence the reason why these are called 'elected absolute Kings'. Truman was, in terms of statesmanship, possibly the best - he was, to use the term correctly 'awful'!

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  11. Such generalizations as "best" and "worst" of anything don't prove much, for in engaging in such activity means taking things out of context. One person's idea of "worst" may be another's idea of "best." Considerable enlightenment about Lincoln and the American Civil War may be achieved by reading James McPherson's "Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution." McPherson masterfully addresses complex concepts in language that anyone can comprehend.

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    1. I like aphorisms but if Oscar Wilde were alive today his remarks would be met by 'You can't generalise, Oscar.' By 'worst' I meant my idea of worst not some other fellow's. I am very ignorant of American history - thank you for the recommendation - if only I could read all the books I want to. One book I do want to read is, Unfree Labor: American Slavery and Russian Serfdom by Peter Kolchin. Someone recommended to me a book on the lead up to the outbreak of the civil war but I can't find it - it might have been Days of Defiance: Sumter, Secession, and the Coming of the Civil War by Maury Klein.

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  12. i was searching on this topic it was included in my research as this article is so sensitive also check Top 10 Worst Presidents Funklist for more information

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    1. I read the article on funklist and I am sad to say that it is horrendously written (spelling, grammar, and logic). I doubt it adds anything to this discussion, unfortunately.

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  13. What about Andrew Jackson? Despite being a champion of the people (especially in regards to his opposition to a central bank), he did a lot to undermine the rule of law, and was responsible for the Trail of Tears. John Adams almost suppressed freedom of speech through the Sedition Act of 1798. I agree that Wilson was one of the worst, for the US and possibly the world, yet in many ways he was good for Romania.
    Other bad presidents in my eyes (for their unintended long-term consequences) would include:
    -Teddy Roosevelt (empire-building, progressivism, and expansion of offensive military incursions)
    -LBJ (war on poverty and certain well-meaning race actions led to degeneration of inner cities in the US, not to mention war-mongering)
    -William Harrison (for dying right after being instated as president, and for giving one of the longest inauguration speeches in the bitter March cold; his agenda was also very pro big government)
    My list is in addition to presidents mentioned by others, such as Hoover.

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