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.