The 7 Biggest Political Blunders of All Time

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istock

We all make bad decisions. Thankfully, most of us don't have armies to command or nations to rule. Read up on some of history's most major missteps, then watch Craig Ferguson and his celebrity panelists debate more of history’s biggest political blunders —plus other world-changing people, events, and inventions—on HISTORY's new late-night show, Join or Die with Craig Ferguson.

7. ALEXANDER THE GREAT REFUSES TO NAME AN HEIR.

The ruler of Macedonia made many savvy decisions during his years of conquest through Persia, Asia Minor and northeastern Africa. But his greatest mistake may be responsible for the unraveling of his empire after his death in 323 BCE. Against the urging of his advisors, Alexander never gave much consideration to what would happen to the empire after he was gone. For years, the young king charged off to battle without a Plan B, perhaps confident that he would rule forever, or at least procrastinating on the matter. When he fell deathly ill in Babylon, his generals urged him to name a successor, but still he refused—after being asked who he would leave his kingdom to, some of Alexander’s last words were said to be “To the strongest.” After he died, the generals declared that Alexander’s half brother and unborn child (assuming he was a son) would share the throne. But both were eventually killed, and the Macedonian commanders descended into decades of warfare with one another. 

6. BRITAIN INSTITUTES THE INTOLERABLE ACTS.

After the Boston Tea Party in 1773, the British Empire decided to show the American colonists who was boss by instituting a series of punitive measures. The Intolerable Acts, as they became known, included the closing of Boston Harbor, the revoking of Massachusetts’ charter, and the return of the much-hated Quartering Act, which required colonists to house and supply British troops. The decision to play tough came too late, however, as the Americans had already endured years of objectionable measures like the Sugar Act and Stamp Act and were fed up with the Crown. Contrary to British intentions, The Intolerable Acts served as a unifying force for the colonists. The situation became increasingly tense until 1775, when the first shots of the American Revolution were fired at Lexington and Concord. 

5. KING LOUIS XVI ISSUES FINANCIAL REFORMS.

When he inherited the throne in 1774, Louis took charge of a government that was deeply in debt and increasingly loathed by the French citizenry. The indecisive ruler did little over the next 15 years to help matters. Instead of raising taxes on the nobility or instituting austerity measures, Louis and his ministers borrowed heavily from foreign lenders. When the French king finally did attempt to implement tax policies, they fell heavily on the commoners, known as the Third Estate. Poor Louis never did feel adequate to the task of turning around the country’s fortunes, and would often depart Versailles on long hunting trips. When he returned to find that citizens had stormed the Bastille, Louis asked an aide if this was a rebellion. “No,” the aide reportedly replied. “It’s a revolution.”   

4. LINCOLN APPOINTS ANDREW JOHNSON AS VICE PRESIDENT.

For his second term in office, Abraham Lincoln chose a running mate he felt would help bridge the divide between North and South following the Civil War: Southern Democrat Andrew Johnson. During the war, Johnson was the only Southern senator who remained with the Union after his state seceded, making Lincoln’s choice understandable in one sense. However, while he supported a unified nation, Johnson’s views on slavery and black rights were firmly in line with the Confederacy. After Lincoln’s assassination, Johnson took the oath and proceeded to bog down reconstruction efforts. He offered amnesty to Southern states and vetoed bills aimed at protecting newly freed black citizens. Republicans in Congress grew so frustrated with Johnson, they that they passed a law that Johnson was virtually guaranteed to break, setting him up for impeachment—a first for an acting U.S. president. After a months-long trial, Johnson kept his job by a single vote. For the rest of his tenure, Johnson continued to veto reconstruction efforts, but Congress overruled his vetoes. At a time when America needed a strong, progressive leader, it got a man who has gone down in history as one of the worst U.S. presidents. 

3. MONTEZUMA WELCOMES THE CONQUISTADORS.

In 1519, the ruthless conquistador Hernan Cortes and his men advanced upon the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, where the emperor Montezuma (sometimes Moctezuma) presided. One would think the Aztec ruler would have greeted Cortes, who had recently sacked the neighboring city of Cholula, with a volley of arrows. But Montezuma instead welcomed Cortes with gifts and a warm greeting outside the city walls. Why? Historians believe Montezuma bought into the prophecy that said Cortes was a visiting deity (a belief Cortes was savvy enough to exploit). An undisputed king his entire life, Montezuma was probably naïve about any challenges to his power, too. In any case, Cortes took the audacious step of making Montezuma his prisoner. For weeks the small company of Spaniards held the emperor hostage inside his own palace as they pillaged the city for gold. 

2. DIOCLETIAN SPLITS THE ROMAN EMPIRE IN HALF.

At the time, it seemed like a practical decision: Divide the world’s largest empire in two, thus making each side easier to rule. And in the short term, Diocletian’s move was hailed as an efficient reorganization of power. Although Emperor Constantine would reunify the two empires relatively soon afterwards, the split effectively alienated the two sides from each other. Around a century after Diocletian, the Empire was formally split between East and West for the last time. The Latin-speaking, largely agrarian Western Empire, with its capital in Milan, struggled through a series of poor harvests, while the Greek-speaking Eastern Empire thrived. When the two sides did communicate, it was usually to argue over resources and military aid. When outside invaders threatened, East and West failed to coordinate defenses, and often the wealthier, better-fortified Eastern Empire would divert attackers to the Western territories. Within two centuries, the Western region came apart, bringing an end to an empire that had ruled for nearly 500 years.

1. THE EMPEROR OF KHWAREZM INSULTS GENGHIS KHAN.

In the early 13th century the Khwarezmid Empire was thriving, and positioned to be a lucrative trading partner with the dominant Mongol Empire. But Khwarezm's emperor, Ala ad-Din Muhammad II, didn't trust the Mongol ruler Genghis Khan. When one of Khwarezm's governors began executing Mongol traders traveling along the Silk Road, the emperor refused to apologize to the great Khan. Still hoping for a cordial relationship, Khan responded by sending an emissary of three ambassadors to meet with Muhammad. The emperor made them wait for weeks before finally granting them an audience. After welcoming the men into his throne room, Muhammad had their beards set on fire and beheaded the lead ambassador. Tired of diplomacy, Genghis Khan repaid the insult by sending 300,000 Mongol horsemen storming across the Khwarezmid Empire, essentially wiping it off the map.   

Catch the premiere of Join or Die with Craig Ferguson this Thursday, February 18 at 11/10c on HISTORY. Disagree with our ranking? Here’s a different take on the world’s worst political blunders ever.

10 Products for a Better Night's Sleep

Amazon/Comfort Spaces
Amazon/Comfort Spaces

Getting a full eight hours of sleep can be tough these days. If you’re having trouble catching enough Zzzs, consider giving these highly rated and recommended products a try.

1. Everlasting Comfort Pure Memory Foam Knee Pillow; $25

Everlasting Comfort Knee Pillow
Everlasting Comfort/Amazon

For side sleepers, keeping the spine, hips, and legs aligned is key to a good night’s rest—and a pain-free morning after. Everlasting Comfort’s memory foam knee pillow is ergonomically designed to fit between the knees or thighs to ensure proper alignment. One simple but game-changing feature is the removable strap, which you can fasten around one leg; this keeps the pillow in place even as you roll at night, meaning you don’t have to wake up to adjust it (or pick it up from your floor). Reviewers call the pillow “life-changing” and “the best knee pillow I’ve found.” Plus, it comes with two pairs of ear plugs.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Letsfit White Noise Machine; $21

Letsfit White Noise Machine
Letsfit/Amazon

White noise machines: They’re not just for babies! This Letsfit model—which is rated 4.7 out of five with nearly 3500 reviews—has 14 potential sleep soundtracks, including three white noise tracks, to better block out everything from sirens to birds that chirp enthusiastically at dawn (although there’s also a birds track, if that’s your thing). It also has a timer function and a night light.

Buy it: Amazon

3. ECLIPSE Blackout Curtains; $16

Eclipse Black Out Curtains
Eclipse/Amazon

According to the National Sleep Foundation, too much light in a room when you’re trying to snooze is a recipe for sleep disaster. These understated polyester curtains from ECLIPSE block 99 percent of light and reduce noise—plus, they’ll help you save on energy costs. "Our neighbor leaves their backyard light on all night with what I can only guess is the same kind of bulb they use on a train headlight. It shines across their yard, through ours, straight at our bedroom window," one Amazon reviewer who purchased the curtains in black wrote. "These drapes block the light completely."

Buy it: Amazon

4. JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock; $38

JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock
JALL/Amazon

Being jarred awake by a blaring alarm clock can set the wrong mood for the rest of your day. Wake up in a more pleasant way with this clock, which gradually lights up between 10 percent and 100 percent in the 30 minutes before your alarm. You can choose between seven different colors and several natural sounds as well as a regular alarm beep, but why would you ever use that? “Since getting this clock my sleep has been much better,” one reviewer reported. “I wake up not feeling tired but refreshed.”

Buy it: Amazon

5. Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light; $200

Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light
Philips/Amazon

If you’re looking for an alarm clock with even more features, Philips’s SmartSleep Wake-Up Light is smartphone-enabled and equipped with an AmbiTrack sensor, which tracks things like bedroom temperature, humidity, and light levels, then gives recommendations for how you can get a better night’s rest.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Slumber Cloud Stratus Sheet Set; $159

Stratus sheets from Slumber Cloud.
Slumber Cloud

Being too hot or too cold can kill a good night’s sleep. The Good Housekeeping Institute rated these sheets—which are made with Outlast fibers engineered by NASA—as 2020’s best temperature-regulating sheets.

Buy it: SlumberCloud

7. Comfort Space Coolmax Sheet Set; $29-$40

Comfort Spaces Coolmax Sheets
Comfort Spaces/Amazon

If $159 sheets are out of your price range, the GHI recommends these sheets from Comfort Spaces, which are made with moisture-wicking Coolmax microfiber. Depending on the size you need, they range in price from $29 to $40.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Coop Home Goods Eden Memory Foam Pillow; $80

Coop Eden Pillow
Coop Home Goods/Amazon

This pillow—which has a 4.5-star rating on Amazon—is filled with memory foam scraps and microfiber, and comes with an extra half-pound of fill so you can add, or subtract, the amount in the pillow for ultimate comfort. As a bonus, the pillows are hypoallergenic, mite-resistant, and washable.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Baloo Weighted Blanket; $149-$169

Baloo Weighted Blanket
Baloo/Amazon

Though the science is still out on weighted blankets, some people swear by them. Wirecutter named this Baloo blanket the best, not in small part because, unlike many weighted blankets, it’s machine-washable and -dryable. It’s currently available in 12-pound ($149) twin size and 20-pound ($169) queen size. It’s rated 4.7 out of five stars on Amazon, with one reviewer reporting that “when it's spread out over you it just feels like a comfy, snuggly hug for your whole body … I've found it super relaxing for falling asleep the last few nights, and it looks nice on the end of the bed, too.” 

Buy it: Amazon 

10. Philips Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band; $200

Philips SmartSleep Snoring Relief Band
Philips/Amazon

Few things can disturb your slumber—and that of the ones you love—like loudly sawing logs. Philips’s Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band is designed for people who snore when they’re sleeping on their backs, and according to the company, 86 percent of people who used the band reported reduced snoring after a month. The device wraps around the torso and is equipped with a sensor that delivers vibrations if it detects you moving to sleep on your back; those vibrations stop when you roll onto your side. The next day, you can see how many hours you spent in bed, how many of those hours you spent on your back, and your response rate to the vibrations. The sensor has an algorithm that notes your response rate and tweaks the intensity of vibrations based on that. “This device works exactly as advertised,” one Amazon reviewer wrote. “I’d say it’s perfect.”

Buy it: Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

9 Fascinating Facts About John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams—sixth President of the United States; son of our second POTUS, John Adams; and all-around interesting guy—was born on July 11, 1767 in a part of Braintree, Massachusetts, that is now known as Quincy. From his penchant for skinny-dipping to his beloved pet alligator, here are some things you might not have known about the skilled statesman.

1. John Quincy Adams was elected president despite losing both the popular and electoral votes.

The election of 1824, which saw John Quincy Adams face off against Andrew Jackson, is the only presidential election that had to be decided by the U.S. House of Representatives, as neither candidate won the majority of electoral votes. Despite losing both the popular and electoral vote, Adams was named president by the House.

2. John Quincy Adams loved morning cardio.

When it comes to personal fitness, early birds have an edge. Studies have shown that morning workouts can curb your appetite, prevent weight gain, and even help you get a good night’s sleep later on. Nobody understood the virtues of morning exercise better than Adams. As America’s foreign minister to Russia, Adams would wake up at five, have a cold bath, and read a few chapters from his German-language Bible. Then came a six-mile walk, followed by breakfast.

3. John Quincy Adams was an avid skinny-dipper.

As president, Adams got his exercise by taking a daily dip in the Potomac … naked. Every morning at 5:00 a.m., he would walk to the river, strip down, and go for a swim. Sadly, the most famous swimming anecdote likely never happened. The story is that when Adams refused an interview with reporter Anne Royall, she hiked down to the river while he was swimming, gathered his clothes, and sat on them until he agreed to talk. But modern historians tend to agree that this story was a later invention . That’s not to say, however, that Adams never talked about Royall. In his diaries he wrote “[Royall] continues to make herself noxious to many persons; treating all with a familiarity which often passes for impudence, insulting those who treat her with incivility, and then lampooning them in her books.”

4. John Quincy Adams enjoyed a good game of pool.

Adams installed a billiards table in the White House shortly after becoming president. The new addition quickly became a subject of controversy when Adams accidentally presented the government with the $61 tab (in reality he had paid for it himself). Nonetheless, political enemies charged that the pool table symbolized Adams’s aristocratic taste and promoted gambling.

5. John Quincy Adams was an amazing orator, but terrible at small talk.

Although Adams was nicknamed “Old Man Eloquent” for his unparalleled public speaking ability, he was terrible at small talk. Aware of his own social awkwardness, Adams once wrote in his diary, “I went out this evening in search of conversation, an art of which I never had an adequate idea. Long as I have lived in the world, I never have thought of conversation as a school in which something was to be learned. I never knew how to make, to control, or to change it.”

6. John Quincy Adams kept a pet alligator in a bathtub at the White House.

Adams had a pet alligator, which was gifted to him by the Marquis de Lafayette. He kept it in a tub in the East Room of the White House for a few months, supposedly claiming that he enjoyed watching “the spectacle of guests fleeing from the room in terror.”

7. When it came to politics, John Quincy Adams played dirty.

The presidential election of 1828—when incumbent John Quincy Adams got crushed by longtime rival Andrew Jackson—is famous for the mudslinging tactics employed by both sides. Adams’s side said Jackson was too dumb to be president, claiming that he spelled Europe “Urope.” They also hurled insults at Jackson’s wife, calling her a “dirty black wench” for getting together with Jackson before divorcing her first husband. Jackson’s side retorted by calling Adams a pimp, claiming that he had once procured an American girl for sexual services for the czar while serving as an ambassador to Russia.

8. John Quincy Adams is responsible for acquiring Florida.

Next time you find yourself soaking up some rays in the Sunshine State, take a moment to thank Adams. As Secretary of State, Adams negotiated the Adams-Onís Treaty, which allowed the U.S. to acquire Florida and set a new boundary between the U.S. and New Spain. That’s right: Walt Disney World might not have been built if it weren’t for the sixth president.

9. John Quincy Adams kind of hated being president.

Adams once reportedly stated, “The four most miserable years of my life were my four years in the presidency.” But even if he hated being commander-in-chief, Adams couldn’t bear to be out of the political loop for too long. After finishing his term as president, Adams served 17 more years in the House of Representatives, where he campaigned against further extension of slavery. In fact, he died shortly after suffering a stroke on the House floor.