The 10 Worst Presidents in American History, According to Historians
Few presidents sworn into the White House have risen to the level of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. Today, many of the men who have held the nation’s highest elected office are better remembered for their catastrophic failures than their successes. To see which of them left negative impressions on history, check out the list of the worst U.S. presidents ever below.
C-SPAN has ranked all of the presidents’ performances at the conclusion of every presidential administration since 2000. The network connects with historians from diverse demographic and ideological backgrounds for their opinions on the achievements—or lack thereof—of past presidents. In 2021, 142 presidential historians and professional observers of the presidency named James Buchanan as the worst president of the 44 they reviewed. He served from 1857 to 1861, and during that single term he managed to further stoke tensions between the North and South by pushing the Dred Scott v. Sandford case through the Supreme Court; the justices ruled that enslaved people were not U.S. citizens. The Civil War started shortly after he left office.
Ranked No. 2 is Andrew Johnson, Abraham Lincoln’s successor and the first president to be impeached. Franklin Pierce was named the third-worst president to serve the United States. One of the most obscure presidents in history, his pro-slavery politics are also blamed for setting up the country for the Civil War.
You can view the full ranking of the 10 worst presidents of all time below. For a refresher on U.S. history, here are facts about all 45 American presidents (yes, we said 45: While there have been 46 presidencies, Grover Cleveland was elected to two nonconsecutive terms—making him both the 22nd and 24th POTUS).
1. James Buchanan // 1857–1861
The odious Dred Scott ruling was not Buchanan’s only dealing with the question of slavery during his administration. He essentially adopted a laissez-faire attitude toward slavery, believing it would somehow go away on its own. Though he was from a Northern state (Pennsylvania), Buchanan often sided with Southerners on the issue, and earned the nickname “doughface”—a term for Northern politicians with Southern sympathies.
2. Andrew Johnson // 1865–1869
Admittedly, Lincoln is a tough act to follow, but Johnson didn’t try very hard to live up to his predecessor’s ethics. As Johnson presided over Reconstruction, Southern states began enacting laws limiting the civil rights of Black citizens, which gave rise to the Jim Crow era. Johnson also fired Lincoln’s secretary of war Edward Stanton, violating the Tenure of Office Act, which led to Johnson’s impeachment.
3. Franklin Pierce // 1853–1857
Preceding Buchanan’s tenure was New Hampshire’s own Franklin Pierce, a president who also stoked the friction between the North and South leading up to the Civil War. Pierce was an inexperienced politician who handed out cabinet appointments to his cronies and presided over the notorious Kansas-Nebraska Act. This act repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had banned slavery in midwestern territories, and allowed white male voters to decide whether to allow slavery in those two states, setting the stage for a period of violent pro- and anti-slavery conflicts dubbed “bleeding Kansas.”
More Articles About Presidents:
4. Donald Trump // 2017–2021
One-term president Donald Trump challenged a multitude of long-established ethical laws, such the Emoluments clauses [PDF] of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibit elected officials from receiving gifts from foreign entities without Congress’s approval. He appointed cabinet secretaries with no political experience and a national security advisor who was working as a foreign agent. And that was before he pushed insidious lies about the integrity of the 2020 election, which brought about the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol.
5. William Henry Harrison // 1841
The first President Harrison is remembered mostly for dying one month after his inauguration. Before that unexpected event, Harrison served in the military and as the governor of the Indiana Territory, where he negotiated multiple treaties with Native American tribes—most of which forced them off their ancestral lands for little in return. Harrison fought the Shawnee leader Tecumseh, winning victories in the Battle of Tippecanoe and the Battle of the Thames River during the War of 1812, which resulted in Tecumseh’s death.
6. John Tyler // 1841–1845
William Henry Harrison’s successor wasn’t much of an improvement. John Tyler served as Harrison’s vice president and established himself as POTUS following Harrison’s demise. His personal politics clashed with his party, the Whigs, and he abused his veto power, which prompted his entire cabinet to resign (except for the secretary of state, Daniel Webster). The Whigs kicked him out. After his home state of Virginia seceded from the Union in 1861, voters elected Tyler to the Confederate House of Representatives. His former political colleagues in Washington called him a traitor.
7. Millard Fillmore // 1850–1853
Millard Fillmore just couldn’t make anyone happy. As Zachary Taylor’s VP, the Whig from upstate New York had nothing in common with his boss (they didn’t even meet until after the election) and they remained at odds throughout their time together. As president following Taylor’s death in office, Fillmore was a strong supporter of the Missouri Compromise, which angered Southern pols. But he also enforced the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required the government to help enslavers find and recapture enslaved people, infuriating Northern abolitionists. The Whigs lost clout during Fillmore’s administration and the party eventually dissolved.
8. Warren G. Harding // 1921–1923
According to Eugene P. Trani, professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University, “Warren G. Harding had few enemies because he rarely took a firm enough stand on an issue to make any.” Ouch. Harding vowed to “return to normalcy” following Woodrow Wilson’s administration, but that really meant taking a step back and letting his more experienced cabinet secretaries set the agenda—which included tax cuts for the wealthy, opposition to organized labor, and opening foreign markets to the tycoons leading America’s richest banks.
9. Herbert Hoover // 1929–1933
Herbert Hoover’s administration began when Wall Street was still riding high in the Roaring Twenties and ended at the lowest point of the Great Depression. Hoover’s policies, which argued for a hands-off approach to stabilizing the economy, didn’t help matters. Banks failed, millions of Americans lost their savings, jobs, and homes; and the newly unhoused set up sprawling encampments called “Hoovervilles” in the largest cities. Voters enthusiastically supported Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal proposals, the opposite of Hoover’s free-market ideas, in the 1932 presidential election.
10. Zachary Taylor // 1849–1850
Zachary Taylor was a respected Army general who won victories in the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War, but served only a little over a year as president before dying in office in July 1850. In that brief time, however, he managed to alienate Northerners, because he owned a cotton plantation in Mississippi and enslaved more than 100 people; Southerners, because he helped prevent California and New Mexico from becoming slave states; and Congress, which felt he was overreaching his policy-making authority.
A version of this story ran in 2021; it has been updated for 2023.