Throughout its history, the United States has had some memorable Heads of State. Some have been largely perceived as great, and others as terrible, though there is always debate regarding the respective merits and faults of each and every one of them. By looking at a number of historical polls and surveys on public and expert perceptions of the best and worst U.S. Presidents, we have compiled a list using the weighted means of their compiled rankings. Ranking systems are usually based on surveys of academic historians and political scientists. The rankings focus on the presidential achievements, leadership qualities, failures, and faults.
Please note that following the 2017 C-SPAN ranking, the aggregating score has changed.
10. George W. Bush
George W. Bush was the 43rd President of the US and served from 2001 until 2009. His father is former President George H.W. Bush (1989 to 1993) and brother Jeb, a former Governor of Florida who recently lost his bid to become the 2016 Republican Presidential candidate. The 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon occurred less than a year into Bush’s presidency. Although he'd achieved a high approval rating just after the tragedy Bush's popularity would never recover after he made the controversial decision to order US military action in Afghanistan as well as Iraq. President Bush will also be remembered for his assertion that Iraq leader Saddam Hussein possessed “weapons of mass destruction”, a claim that was later found to be false. During his presidency Bush also faced criticism for his mishandling of Hurricane Katrina as well as the financial crisis of 2008.
9. Zachary Taylor
Former military officer Zachary Taylor served as the 12th US President but only held this prominent office briefly from 1849 to 1850. As a member of the Whig party Taylor won the election despite the fact that the ex-Major General was viewed by many of his peers as lacking in political experience. Among the many issues facing Taylor’s government were the status of the newly acquired territories of Utah, California, and New Mexico which had been gained after the Mexican War. Slavery was another ongoing issue debated by members of Taylor’s administration. Many historians believe that Zachary Taylor’s reputation as a poor head of state may stem more from his inexperience as well as the short time he spent in office rather than any of specific political policy.
8. Ulysses S. Grant
The 18th President of the US was Republican Ulysses S. Grant who served as the head of state from 1869 to 1877. As a General in the military Grant had played a major role in the Union army’s victory over the Confederacy’s forces during the American Civil War. President Grant’s accomplishments during his two terms in office include overseeing Reconstruction in the southern states, dismantling the Confederacy, as well as supporting civil rights for black citizens. Perhaps the most significant cause of Grant’s downfall and reputation as a poor leader are due to the many allegations of corruption and financial misconduct which plagued his administration. Another major failure of Grant’s career occurred during the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn when US General Custer was killed by warriors from the Sioux tribe.
7. John Tyler
In 1841 John Tyler was the nation’s 10th Vice President before being sworn in as President following the untimely death of William Henry Harris. Although he was elected as a member of the Whig party Tyler began his political career as a Democrat. Tyler believed in the concept of manifest destiny and during the final portion of his presidency concentrated on annexing the territory of Texas. In 1842 Tyler became the first American head of state to face impeachment. Although the attempt to oust Tyler was ultimately unsuccessful it was spearheaded by members of his own Whig party and stemmed from long standing political conflicts between President Tyler and members of the Whig establishment.
6. William Henry Harrison
The 9th President of the United States was William Henry Harrison, who served for a period of about a month from March to April 1841. Harrison has the unfortunate distinction of being the very first American President to die in office. He only actually governed for approximately 30 days, which historically is the shortest term of any President in US history. Before embarking on a career in politics in 1799 William Henry Harrison had a great deal of military experience including fighting in battles such as the Northwest Indian War and the War of 1812. Because of his very brief time in office Harrison failed to achieve any of his political goals. Many years later, however, Benjamin Harrison, William’s grandson, was elected as the 23rd President and held office from 1889 to 1893.
5. Millard Fillmore
Millard Fillmore was the final Whig member to hold the office of US President. Fillmore served in the role as the nation’s 13th President from 1850 to 1853. A former lawyer, Fillmore began his career in politics in 1829 as a member of the state legislature. Initially the representative from New York was elected as Vice President but assumed the top job when President Zachary Taylor died in 1850. Slavery was a major issue during this period in US history and Fillmore was well known as a supporter of the Compromise of 1850. As President Fillmore endorsed a particularly controversial portion of this policy known as the Fugitive Slave Act which was aimed at settling disputes between Southern slave owners and abolitionists in the North. This act, formerly entitled, “An Act respecting Fugitives from Justice, and Persons escaping from the Service of their Masters” stated that if caught all escaped slaves were to be returned to their masters.
4. Franklin Pierce
The 14th President of the US was Franklin Pierce whose term as head of state ran from 1853 to 1857. Pierce’s administration is widely considered to have been a failure which served as a leading reason for the political decline of the Democratic Party. President Pierce also provided the perfect environment in which to foster the growing Southern secession movement. Like Fillmore, his predecessor, President Pierce upheld the controversial Fugitive Slave Act. In another unpopular action Piece’s administration was responsible for passing the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act which led to the so called “Bleeding Kansas” or Border War which was waged between anti and pro-slavery factions. This particular act is also considered as being one of the key events that lead up to the widespread death and destruction caused by the ravages of the Civil War.
3. Andrew Johnson
After Abraham Lincoln’s assassination his Vice President, Andrew Johnson, was sworn in as the 17th head of state. Johnson, a native of Raleigh, North Carolina, governed the country from 1865 to 1869. Due to a violation of the Tenure of Office Act the President was impeached in 1868. After a quick acquittal by the Senate, however, Johnson was able to remain in office. Because Andrew Johnson was elected after the beginning of the Civil War issues related to the Reconstruction of the South and national unity came to the forefront of national politics not only in terms of Johnson’s administration but for the entire country as well. President Johnson was unpopular for opposing measures, such as the Fourteenth Amendment, which was aimed at affording ex slaves with US citizenship.
2. Warren G. Harding
The 29th President of the US was Warren G. Harding, who held office from 1921 to 1923. Harding is regarded by a great many historians to be one of America’s worst presidents. After his death stories of corruption and scandal became rampant. Aside from his actual political policies Hardy’s personal life was marred by tawdry revelations of his extramarital affairs with numerous women including Nan Britton who even wrote a book which claimed that Hardy had fathered a daughter with her. In terms of issues related to governing the country President Harding ran into trouble with his mishandling of the Teapot Dome oil reserves which also proved quite scandal-worthy for his administration. The political affair began when, under the President’s authority, oil reserves in Wyoming destined to be used by the Navy were transferred to the Department of the Interior.
1. James Buchanan
James Buchanan, Jr., a Democrat, was the 15th President of the United States, and held this prestigious post from 1857 to 1861. His mandate began just before the onset of the American Civil War. Before taking the top job Buchanan had accumulated plenty of political experience after serving in the House of Representatives and Senate. Buchanan had even held the post of Secretary of State under President Polk. Buchanan was born in Pennsylvania, but was regarded as having Southern sympathies. President Buchanan not only failed to broker peace between a divided nation, but also ended up alienating members of both warring factions. Many still blame President Buchanan and his ineffective presidency for failing to prevent the outbreak of the Civil War, with some even referring to the devastating national conflict as “Buchanan’s War”.
Which US President Do You Believe Belongs on This List?
President Barack Obama
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President Ronald Reagan
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President Richard Nixon