Presidents -- the good and the bad
We tend to lionize or demonize our presidents. It would be tough to find many Abraham Lincoln detractors -- or, for that matter, many Warren G. Harding fans. But even our greatest heroes occasionally failed, and the worst presidents could boast of some worthy accomplishments.
On the cusp of a new presidential administration and the end of another, we asked nine presidential historians to assess the actions of presidents past. Op-Ed contributing writer Sara Catania asked scholars who have written about presidents generally considered failures to write about the best things those leaders did. Scholars who have focused on great presidents were asked to write about executive failings. Here’s what they had to say.
The best presidents?
Popularly remembered as the author of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson was a classic polymath and a prolific writer. One congressman at the time observed that “he is more deeply versed in human nature and human learning than almost the whole tribe of his opponents and revilers.”
Perhaps the worst thing Jefferson did as president was to prosecute first and ask questions later. He arranged for the impeachment of an associate justice of the Supreme Court who was really only guilty of having a big mouth. That failed. Later, he publicly accused his first-term vice president, Aaron Burr, of committing treason. In this instance, Jefferson chose to believe the word of a corrupt general and wild rumors printed in biased newspapers. I have never quite figured out why Jefferson only became chummy with Burr after Burr shot and killed Alexander Hamilton.
-- Andrew Burstein
Professor of history, Louisiana State University; author of “Jefferson’s Secrets: Death and Desire at Monticello”
Resolving a civil war, ending slavery and being assassinated are enough to secure any president’s legacy. Throw in a massive gift for oratory and a like-sized sense of humor, and you have what Woodrow Wilson later called “a very normal man with very normal gifts, but all upon a great scale, all knit together in loose and natural form, like the great frame in which he moved and dwelt.”
The worst thing Lincoln did, without question, was pulling the plug on a key Civil War campaign strategy. The clear path for the Union army to capturing the Confederate capital at Richmond was through the Chesapeake waterways, with the substantial help of the U.S. Navy. But after one of Lincoln’s commanding generals, George B. McClellan, botched an early waterborne attempt, and then blamed his failure on Lincoln and began dropping loose rumors about a military coup, Lincoln abruptly reversed course. Even after Lincoln relieved McClellan of his command, any proposal to use the Chesapeake and the Virginia waterways was politically radioactive. For two years after, Union generals and soldiers tried to slog their way overland, along the ladder of Virginia’s swamps and rivers, butting into one perfect Confederate defensive position after another and losing thousands of lives in the process. Lincoln was a skilled political thinker but a military amateur, dealing with ideas of strategy that he extracted from out-of-date military manuals.
-- Allen Guelzo
Professor of history and Civil War-era studies, Gettysburg College; author of “Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President”
Roosevelt assumed the presidency after the assassination of William McKinley, eagerly shedding the humdrum vice presidency for the “bully pulpit” of the nation’s highest office. Said a veteran reporter: “President Roosevelt, of all the presidents, best understood the uses of publicity. He had a genius for it.”
Roosevelt’s worst mistake, in a two-term presidency otherwise remarkably free of political or moral errors, was his dishonorable discharge of an entire regiment of black soldiers after an alleged riot in Brownsville, Texas, in 1906. As commander in chief, Roosevelt felt that he was merely confirming the guilt laid on the regiment by the army’s own inspector general. But his rush to judgment, without allowing a single soldier to testify in self-defense, and in the face of convincing evidence that the “riot” had been invented by white racists, dismayed many of TR’s supporters -- particularly those black Americans who revered him for his public embrace of Booker T. Washington in 1901. Roosevelt seemed to realize that he had miscarried justice, but his pride would not allow him to admit fault, and I suspect that his subsequent decision not to run for a third term was based on the self-knowledge that arrogance had begun to inflate his love of power.
-- Edmund Morris
Author of “Theodore Rex” and “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt”
In the wake of World War I, Wilson helped establish the League of Nations. Though he failed to persuade the U.S. to join, he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. The muckraking journalist Ida Tarbell said: “Here at last we have a president whose real interest in life centers around the common man, and on whom we can count to serve that man so far as his ability goes.”
Wilson failed to stand up for civil rights during and after the war. That failure played a part in the rise of super-patriotism, the persecution of German Americans and war critics, and to a series of deadly race riots in American cities. More than that, it contributed to the rise of anti-immigrant xenophobia after the war, to the revival of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s and to a perpetuation of American racism that remains one of the great blots on our national history. It wouldn’t have cost him much to have spoken up for tolerance, but he did so only belatedly and timidly. On this matter, he betrayed his own best principles.
-- Kendrick A. Clements
Professor of history, South Carolina University; author of “Woodrow Wilson: World Statesman”
Franklin D. Roosevelt
The architect of the New Deal and the man who shepherded the United States through World War II, Roosevelt was the longest-serving president in American history. On his death, Winston Churchill said: “One day the world, and history, will know what it owes to your president.”
FDR perpetrated one of the most egregious examples of executive overreaching in American history. Despite his enormous virtues, he was also vindictive, a trait clearly in evidence when he approved the forcible internment of Japanese Americans. He authorized the so-called exclusion zones in early 1942, when he was still bursting with bitterness because of the attack on Pearl Harbor. A month later, when his secretary of the Treasury informed him of the enormous financial losses being suffered by Japanese Americans as a result of their internment, Roosevelt said he didn’t care. In all, more than 100,000 people were imprisoned, the majority of them American citizens.
-- Jean Edward Smith
Professor of political science, Marshall University; author of “FDR”
The worst presidents?
Tyler is one of just two U.S. presidents to serve part of his term without party affiliation, and his ineffectiveness in office has been attributed in part to his isolation from the political process. One newspaper editor, who was also a leader of the Whig party, called Tyler a “poor, miserable, despised imbecile.”
Tyler established, for the first time, the right of the vice president to become president on the death of an incumbent. He became the United States’ first “accidental president” in April 1841, when President William Henry Harrison died in office just one month after his inauguration. Critics challenged his legitimacy and dubbed Tyler “His Accidency.” But he had been forewarned that Harrison might die in office and thus was forearmed to boldly establish his right to the office and powers of the presidency. The “Tyler precedent” of presidential succession was invoked seven times and ultimately codified as the 25th Amendment in 1967. Tyler’s decisive action in the first few weeks of his administration placed all future vice presidents a heartbeat from the presidency, and the American presidency as an institution became independent of death.
-- Edward P. Crapol
History professor emeritus, College of William and Mary; author of “John Tyler: The Accidental President”
Pierce enabled the expansion of slavery in the West. He also secretly plotted to acquire Cuba from Spain. A drinker of some renown, he was referred to derisively as “hero of many a well-fought bottle.”
The best thing Pierce did as president had to do with excrement. Specifically, guano, or bird droppings, which were so essential to U.S. agriculture in the mid-1800s that the era is sometimes referred to as the Golden Age of Guano. In 1856, Pierce signed the Guano Island Act, which allowed U.S. citizens to mine guano on any unclaimed island in the world. It was a time of expansion, and what the guano law did was enable the U.S. to claim rights to whatever land it wanted, as long as somebody else didn’t already own it. It was a very smart move -- if you like empires.
-- Larry Gara
Author, “The Presidency of Franklin Pierce”
Johnson assumed the presidency after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. He enabled an era of post-slavery white supremacy in the South and is one of only two U.S. presidents to be impeached. One senator of the day said Johnson was an “insolent drunken brute in comparison with which Caligula’s horse was respectable.”
Johnson was an extremely popular politician in Tennessee and an extremely bad president. So it’s rather remarkable that the 13th Amendment was passed on his watch. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was incomplete. It left out any number of places where slavery was still permitted. It wasn’t until the 13th Amendment was passed that slavery was forbidden across the country. Johnson was president when the amendment was ratified, so I suppose he deserves credit for it.
-- Hans L. Trefousse
Professor of history at Brooklyn College and Graduate Center at CUNY; author of “Andrew Johnson: A Biography”
Warren G. Harding
Harding’s aversion to conflict undermined his short-lived presidency: His Cabinet was rife with corruption, and several of his appointees were forced to resign, sent to prison or both. After just two years in office, he himself acknowledged, “I am not fit for this office and never should have been here.” He died in office of a heart attack.
Most of the explanations for Harding’s low ranking are wrong or exaggerated or both. For this reason, it is difficult to select from his many real accomplishments a single best. But in musing over Harding’s actions -- like placing the federal government on a business footing by creating the Bureau of the Budget, pardoning Eugene Debs for a trumped-up sedition conviction, using his presidency to champion civil rights for African Americans, and his successful Washington disarmament conference of 1921 -- I decided his single best action was to return the nation to “normalcy” (as he promised in his campaign) after the racist, dishonest, egomaniacal, God-ordained and take-the-nation-to-war-and-refuse-to-compromise-on-peace presidency of his predecessor, the much-overrated Woodrow Wilson. Harding quietly cleaned up Wilson’s mess and returned the nation to peace and prosperity. Not bad for a so-called worst president.
-- John W. Dean
White House counsel to Richard Nixon; author of “Warren G. Harding”
Get Group Therapy
Life is stressful. Our weekly mental wellness newsletter can help.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.