Long before the 24-hour news cycle came along, kings, presidents, and emperors committed all sorts of blunders. 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. WILLIAM SEWARD LEAVES THE COUNTRY.
Leading up to the 1860 presidential election, the former New York governor was the Republican Party’s frontrunner for the nomination. So confident was Seward in his selection, in fact, that for several months prior to the party's 1860 convention, he traveled abroad, making stops throughout Europe and Asia. While in Beirut, he even purchased a few Arabian horses. After returning to America, Seward found that a lawyer from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln had slipped in and gained the party's support. Seward’s ill-timed trip wasn't the only reason he lost—his outspoken nature and vehement opposition to slavery gained him enemies amongst Republicans—but it certainly didn't help matters. In the end, he fared quite well, becoming secretary of state under Lincoln. He also made another far-flung gamble, but one that paid off handsomely: The 1867 purchase of Alaska from Russia.
6. NAPOLEON INSTITUTES THE CONTINENTAL SYSTEM.
Like any great conflict, The Napoleonic Wars weren't just fought with swords and cannons. Damages were also inflicted using trade orders, blockades, and decrees. After Britain issued a naval blockade of France in 1806, French ruler Napoleon Bonaparte responded by prohibiting all allies and nations under his control, which by then included most of Europe, from trading with England. If France couldn't defeat Britain on the high seas, it would put the country’s economy in a stranglehold. Of course, Britain’s naval superiority allowed it to maneuver around Napoleon’s land-based enforcement of the Continental System. It also established alternate trade routes with South America. France’s efforts to stop the British taxed its military and created conflicts with its own allies—most notably Russia, setting up Napoleon’s ill-fated invasion in the winter of 1812.
5. CHINA WITHDRAWS FROM THE WORLD.
By the 15th century, China’s Ming Dynasty had become a global power, with trade routes reaching across the world. Rather than continue its growth, however, Ming authorities ordered all ships and merchants back to the homeland, the first in a string of isolationist policies that lasted until the 1800s. The orders were due in part to a growing adherence to Confucian philosophy, which promoted self-sufficiency and the evils of material wealth. China also wanted to shore up its defenses against the Mongols and against pirates that had plagued its eastern shores for years. The impact of withdrawing from the world stage was predictable: China fell behind in everything from diplomacy to technology. Its vast size meant it was still a powerful country, but isolationism cut it off from the cultural currents it had once so adamantly embraced.
4. WILLIAM HENRY HARRISON'S INAUGURAL SPEECH.
Not only was the 1841 speech overly long and boring (the longest inaugural speech in history, in fact, at 8445 words), but the ninth president delivered it outdoors on a sub-freezing afternoon, sans coat, hat, or gloves. Harrison was no stranger to bad weather, having worked as a farmer and served as a soldier. Even so, the decision to brave the elements was a bone-headed one that would prove disastrous, as he soon developed pneumonia. Doctors tried the era’s usual remedies, including bleeding the president with leeches and trying to draw out the disease with heated cups. They also resorted to a Native American cure that involved live snakes. It was all in vain. Harrison died after just one month in office, making him the shortest-serving president in U.S. history.
3. FEDERALISTS IMPOSE THE ALIEN AND SEDITION ACTS.
After the French populace rose up against the ruling class, Americans politicians feared revolution was headed to their shores, as well. In 1798, President John Adams and the Federalist-dominated congress instituted a series of acts aimed at quashing even the faintest whiff of domestic rebellion. These included the Naturalization Act, which raised the residency requirement for citizenship from five years to fourteen, and the Alien Act, which gave the U.S. government power to deport any immigrants it deemed a threat. The Sedition Act, meanwhile, outlawed printing or even saying anything “false, scandalous, or malicious” about the government. The Alien and Sedition Acts were an affront to the newly minted U.S. Constitution, and were regularly flouted and protested by citizens. Even the acts' secondary aim, to take power away from the Democratic-Republican Party, backfired. In 1800, Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson took office and repealed or didn't renew most of the Alien and Sedition Acts. They live on only as the tarnished legacy of the Federalist Party, which soon faded from American politics.
2. KING PHILLIP II ENTRUSTS THE SPANISH ARMADA TO A LAND GENERAL.
After nearly two centuries of naval dominance in the 15th and 16th century, Spain's rulers may have grown overconfident in their seafaring abilities. In 1588, while warring with England, King Phillip II decided to send the “invincible” Spanish Armada north to clear the English Channel for a subsequent land invasion. To lead the fleet of 130 ships, he chose the esteemed Alonso Pérez de Guzmán, an inexperienced but fiercely loyal commander. There was just one problem: Guzmán's experience was primarily on land, and he was also prone to sea sickness. In their first engagement, the English outdueled the Spanish with superior cannons, forcing Guzmán to retreat to Spain. On his second voyage, the Spanish general decided to maneuver around the north of England and hit the enemy from the other side—a great idea for land troops, but terrible for sea forces. Guzman didn't count on the rough seas of the North Atlantic, which battered the armada. By the time his diminished forces reached the English Channel, the enemy was ready and waiting, and made short work of the Spaniards.
1. ATAHUALPA GETS DRUNK, LOSES THE INCAN EMPIRE.
This one reads like a scene straight from a screenplay. In 1532, the conquistador Francisco Pizarro invited the Incan emperor Atahualpa to a banquet in the town of Cajamarca. Seeing that the Spaniard had fewer than 200 men with him, Atahualpa determined Pizarro wasn't a threat. And, having just taken control of the empire from his half brother Huascar, Atahualpa was in a celebratory mood. So the emperor ventured away from his 80,000-strong encampment with just 5000 men, and on the way knocked back a few libations. What could possibly go wrong? After attempting to convert Atahualpa to Christianity, Pizarro sprang the most obvious trap in history, imprisoning the emperor and massacring his soldiers. Atahualpa saved himself from the stake by delivering gold to the conquistadors. But Pizarro executed him anyway, and proceeded to take the Incan Empire, too.
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.