Who Was Worst?

Another presidential poll has come and gone, this one populated by political scientists, who tend to measure presidents according to how closely they approximate their conception of the modern presidency (thus historians tend to rate Ulysses S. Grant higher than do political scientists). But the folks at the bottom include three Civil War-era names: Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and Andrew Johnson.

Which one do you think was worst … and why? Often the criteria one uses is critical to understanding these assessments.

35 thoughts on “Who Was Worst?

  1. Christopher Shelley February 18, 2015 / 12:09 am

    Not. Even. Close. AJ, all the way.

    But I give Buchanan low marks as well. I always had Buchanan lower than Bush II.

  2. msb February 18, 2015 / 12:39 am

    Buchanan, because he fiddled while the Union smoldered.

    • John Foskett February 18, 2015 / 10:09 am

      I agree. Buchanan was at best a cipher who occasionally actually contributed to putting the USA at a disadvantage in the winter of 1860-61. Not to mention his clandestine communications with Taney about the forthcoming Dred Scott debacle. Pierce and Johnson are convenient Buchanan Bookends with a fondness for the bottle.

      • Nathan Towne June 15, 2018 / 6:50 am

        Well, Buchanan had actually been corresponding with Justices Catron and Grier pertaining to the Dred Scott case, which is how he knew the basic nature of the impending decision. As for the propriety of this, it should be remembered that it was actually fairly common at the time for the President, or President-elect, to be in contact with Justices serving on the Supreme Court. Chase continued to correspond with and meet with President Lincoln fairly regularly after being appointed as Chief Justice. Likewise, he continued to communicate with President Johnson following Lincoln’s assassination and met with him personally on several occasions. So, there is more to it than you state here.

        • John Foskett July 19, 2018 / 8:30 am

          You apparently confuse (1) what is appropriate with (2) what took place on a “regular” basis. You may note, reading for comprehension, that I didn’t say that it never happened. I simply indicated that it was improper. You should be able to distinguish the two.

          • Nathan Towne July 26, 2018 / 10:35 am

            Fair point.

            I was simply stating that it must be recognized that it was not particularly unusual for a President, or President-elect to be in communication with a Supreme Court Justice, at the time. We know that several of Buchanan’s contemporaries, including both Lincoln and Johnson, while they were each President, did so as well. With that said though, I am not genuinely sure how different this incident may have been. I would have to study the available record with some of those other incidents in order to get a better idea.

            Also, Buchanan was not in active correspondence with Justice Taney. Buchanan had been communicating with his long-time contact, Justice Catron, who subsequently put him in touch with Justice Grier. Buchanan’s correspondence with both of them can be found in the records. The incident that took place with Justice Taney is purported to have occurred at Buchanan’s inauguration. Buchanan, in his inaugural address, pledged to adhere faithfully to the pending decision of the Court in the case. The Dred Scott decision was then delivered two days later on March 6, 1857. It was subsequently reported in several newspapers that individuals who were present at the inauguration had overheard Justice Taney, who as Chief Justice was responsible for administering the oath of office, inform Buchanan of how the Court was going to rule. We can make of that what we will, but it was reported in a number of newspapers in the ensuing days.

  3. Bert February 18, 2015 / 3:02 am

    I went with Pierce. No doubt that a convincing case can be made for the other two. But his administration put the pieces in place that made war practically inevitable the next time anyone other than a candidate sympathetic to the south won the presidency. Also, I just don’t like the guy. Unlike Douglass, he took the wrong side once secession started.

    • Mike Stone July 21, 2018 / 10:38 am

      Agreed. Things were just starting to cool down after the 1850 crisis, to the point where the same man could sweep both North and South. Then Pierce, by supporting the Kansas-Nebraska Act, proceeded to throw petrol onto the smouldering embers.

  4. jfepperson February 18, 2015 / 8:21 am

    I’ll go with Buck, because he did nothing to prevent the coming war. Although I do think Pierce might deserve more scrutiny.

  5. Keith Harris February 18, 2015 / 11:06 am

    I had to go with Buchanan. I mean, the country fell apart on his watch.

  6. M.D. Blough February 18, 2015 / 11:35 am

    Pierce is my candidate for worst for the reasons Bert gave. It may be damning with faint praise but I give Buchanan a few points for not leaving Lincoln in a worse position. He could have ordered Anderson to abandon Ft. Sumter, but he didn’t despite enormous pressure from the secessionist sympathizers in his cabinet, especially Secretary of War (and soon-to-be Confederate general) John B. Floyd. He could have formally received the emissaries from South Carolina or even attempted to recognize the Confederacy. It’s not much

    As for Johnson, my feelings are mixed. He was a deeply flawed man put by tragedy in a position for which he was abysmally unsuited and faced with attempting to compete with the sainted popular memory of his predecessor. He should serve as warning to all future presidential candidates to place, above all, the fitness of the candidates for nomination as his running mate, the candidate’s fitness to assume the office of the presidency and not balancing the ticket geographically or as an olive branch to opponents.

  7. Jarret Ruminski February 18, 2015 / 1:02 pm

    Gotta’ go with Andrew Johnson. The mere fact that an unwavering southern Unionist, under the banner of vehemently racist beliefs that were potent even for the time, could so utterly and purposefully tilt Reconstruction in favor of the very same goons he deemed as traitors gives him the “worst” distinction. Johnson was the godfather of Southern Redemption; a guy who managed to turn a once-in-a-lifetime political opportunity into the Civil War: Part Deux.

  8. Mr. Martin February 18, 2015 / 1:58 pm

    I would say Pierce by default. Buchanan managed the secession crisis skillfully and diplomatically, whereas for his part Johnson demonstrated tremendous political resolve and personal courage during his term in office. So Pierce by default.

    • John Foskett February 19, 2015 / 4:13 pm

      Yep. Buchanan “managed” the Secession Crisis brilliantly – if the objective was secession and then war.

  9. Jimmy Dick February 18, 2015 / 4:20 pm

    Oh the loathing of these three choices. There are three others that would qualify for the title of Worst President Ever right along with “What the Hell were People Thinking (not) when They Voted for these Assholes?” However, let’s stick with the three selections for the current title.

    I think James Buchanan wins over Andrew Johnson quite well. (The only time I vote for this guy!) He failed miserably to prevent the Civil War and ignored the actions of many southern sympathizing officials who literally stole from the federal government. He had the chance to nip the situation in the bud and instead let it explode. We can toss in his handling of the Dred Scot case but that is just adding to the misery.

    Johnson was an incredible worthless president as well and serves as the poster child along with John Tyler of why never to choose a VP candidate unless they are on the same page as you are.

  10. Joshism February 18, 2015 / 8:39 pm

    Johnson gets my vote because whereas Buchanan was handed a bad situation and failed to fix it, Johnson was handed Reconstruction and proceeded to make a mess of it. While Buchanan was one of the most disappointing Presidents (he had a great political resume) and obviously failed miserably to prevent the Civil War I think there was little or nothing Buchanan could have done to prevent the war by the time he was president.

    If Johnson and Buchanan were backup QBs who came in at halftime: Johnson came in while his team was up by several touchdowns and blew the lead whereas Buchanan came in when his team was down several touchdowns, threw multiple interceptions, and never came remotely close to making a comeback. Blown leads are far more shameful than unsuccessful comebacks.

    Pierce wasn’t a good president, but I don’t know how he’s really even in contention with the other two other than being from the same time period.

    • Mike Stone, Peterborough, England February 19, 2015 / 9:46 am

      The point about Pierce was that he inherited the embers of a fire (1848-50) which had finally stated to cool off – and then proceeded to throw a bucket of petrol on them.

      Buchanan and Johnson inherited situations which were almost guaranteed to end badly unless the President was a genius – and even that might not have helped. Pierce inherited a crisis that had seemingly passed – and promptly stoked it up all over again.

      • John Foskett February 19, 2015 / 4:11 pm

        I think you vastly underestimate the actual harm which Buchanan inflicted in his highly inappropriate (one might say “corrupt”) communications with Taney and Grier regarding the proper scope of the Court’s ruling before it issued the Dred Scott decision. That decision by itself was a significant domino in the ensuing implosion. He was not merely a weak actor who failed to stop the onrushing tide.

  11. Mike Stone February 19, 2015 / 6:52 am


    It was he who set the stage for a head on north-south confrontation by supporting that [expletive deleted] Kansas-Nebraska Act. Buchanan didn’t exactly help but most of the damage was already done before his inauguration.

    As for Johnson, he didn’t exactly help, but in the end things would have gone on much the same even without him. The South cared about not tolerating Freedmen’s rights, most people in the North didn’t, so the outcome was predictable – whoever had been President.

  12. Al Mackey February 19, 2015 / 4:00 pm

    Buchanan just wasn’t up to the task. Johnson is worse because he was malevolent, picking a fight with Congress and vetoing Civil Rights legislation, actively trying to block attempts to make life better for African-Americans.

    • Mike Stone, Peterborough, England February 20, 2015 / 12:25 am

      How does that make Johnson “worse”? He wasn’t particularly nice, but it’s not clear how his actions led to anything happening that wouldn’t have happened anyway. Pierce’s did, and possibly Buchanan’s too.

      • Al Mackey February 20, 2015 / 9:10 am

        Being malevolent and incompetent is worse than simply being incompetent.

        • Mike Stone, Peterborough, England February 20, 2015 / 9:33 am

          Even if the incompetence makes a major difference and the malevolence doesn’t?

          • Al Mackey February 20, 2015 / 11:22 am

            I would say that a study of Reconstruction shows Johnson’s incompetence and his malevolence both made major differences.

        • Neon Confederate February 20, 2015 / 2:06 pm

          True, but being competent and malevolent now that’s a bad combination.

  13. Belvedere February 20, 2015 / 2:49 pm

    I think what is so extraordinarily admirable about Buchanan is the poise, control, and restraint he exhibited in the face of the crisis. While Buchanan did indeed erroneosuly hold the position that secession is unconstitutional, he nevertheless fully understood that deliberate provocation, open antagonism, and ruthless violence is not an especially civilized response to a constitutional dispute. His refined strategy of patience and peace reflected an approach to conflict resolution that more closely parallels an evolved nuanced 21st century model of statesmanship and diplomacy than the more medieval and brutish Lincolite tactics which ultiamately, and tragically, were used. In most historical discussion,Buchanan goes entirely unappreciated.

    • Brooks D. Simpson February 23, 2015 / 8:02 am

      Foster, when you continue to post under multiple names from the same source, you win a trip to the spam filter. It’s been real.

    • Nathan Towne March 2, 2015 / 10:28 pm

      The Buchanan administration, in it’s official capacity, actually responded with enormous hostility to secession, playing a significant role in inducing combined action (as urgently proposed by Governor Joseph Emerson Brown of Georgia) from the executive departments of the states of Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama in early January of 1861. The administration offered very little conciliation with secession and being that the Lincoln ultimately offered his unconditional support of the Corwin Amendment during his Inaugural address and elected against the policies that William Seward was advocating to the new president, the policies of the Buchanan administration from December 20th, 1860 through March 4th of 1861 and the policies of the Lincoln administration from March 4th of 1861 through April 15th of 1861 are actually exceptionally similar to one another. I recognize that the men were certainly different men and they differed enormously in their principles. I also understand that the secession of Virginia would serve to reveal difference in their positions, but if you actually follow the respective administrations policy decisions and actions during the crisis, you will see far more continuities then you will differences.

      In the modern literature, Russell McClintock and William Cooper are both invaluable in this regard.

      The question that I don’t have an entirely viable answer to is why so many historians writing typically from either a Unionist perspective or an anti-slavery perspective have excoriated Buchanan’s actions during the crisis and idealized Lincoln’s despite the responses of the two administrations not only both seeking the same fundamental goals with regards to the preservation of the Union and the protection of American facilities, but also approaching those goals in such a similar manner?

      Nathan Towne

      • Michael William Stone March 4, 2015 / 3:18 am

        Jefferson Davis knew better.

        If I remember my Bruce Catton correctly, he expressed the opinion that “If Mr Lincoln seeks war, all he need do is continue on the course that Mr Buchanan is already pursuing”.

        • Nathan Towne March 4, 2015 / 5:49 pm

          Mr. Stone

          I appreciate the response.

          I am not aware of the quote that you are referencing, or if I have come across it before I am not remembering it off the top of my head at the moment. If you are able to come across it again I would love to get a citation for it.


          Nathan Towne

          • Mike Stone, Peterborough, England March 5, 2015 / 4:26 pm

            I’ve traced the quote, which is in Kenneth M Stampp “And the War Came”, at the end of Chapter V.

            Stamp was quoting a letter of Davis to Franklin Pierce, dated Jan 20, 1861. The exact words were “When Lincoln comes in, he will have but to continue in the path of his predecessor to inaugurate a civil war”.

        • John Foskett March 5, 2015 / 8:26 am

          What “course” was that? The single action Buchanan took was to garrison Fort Sumter. In his state of the union message, he had clearly stated that secession was illegal but equally clearly stated that the federal government had no authority to prevent secession. His views about northern abolitionists were crystal clear. Other than Sumter, other federal garrisons/property were left largely undefended/uncontested. Assuming that we can find the Davis quote somewhere, I wouldn’t dash to the finish line with it. Davis would have viewed anything less than total capitulation and agreement to all Southern demands as setting a “course” for war. It’s hardly a credible endorsement of Buchanan as either effective or a firm opponent of the the Union’s dissolution. His record speaks for itself. As a general proposition, it’s a bad idea to put much stock in quotes like this. It sounds similar to Lee’s statement that the toughest opponent he faced was McClellan. The objective facts are overwhelmingly to the contrary.

  14. Mike Stone, Peterborough, England February 21, 2015 / 1:40 am

    Johnson was mostly unlucky in his timing.

    Had he been President earlier, in 1860-1, he’d have taken a very tough line against secession, and might have shortened the war. If he’ came in a decade later, when northerners had got tired of Reconstruction, his policies would have been accepted without much trouble.

    As it was, he foresaw the future, but tried to make it happen too soon, seeking to apply Rutherford Hayes’ policy before the Republican Party was ready for it. His failure to grasp that point was his undoing.

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