Glenn W. LaFantasie: Who's the Worst President of Them All?

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Glenn W. LaFantasie is the Richard Frockt Family Professor of Civil War History at Western Kentucky University. He is working on a book about Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant.]

In 2006, while the Bush administration smashed its way through two wars, countless constitutional constraints, and a fragile economy constructed on the slippery slope of tax cuts for the wealthy, Sean Wilentz, a Princeton historian, pondered in Rolling Stone whether W. would be regarded as America's worst president. Rather coyly, Wilentz never came right out and said that Bush 43 was the worst, but his essay gathered together all the evidence that pointed toward only one verdict: guilty as charged.

In making his case, Wilentz mentioned a 2004 poll of historians, who predicted that Bush would surely end up among the worst five presidents. While presidents have a way of rewriting their own history -- witness Bush's recent book tour -- he doesn't seem to be on a path to any near-term redemption. For example, a poll conducted in July 2010 by the Siena Research Institute revealed that 238 "presidential scholars" had ranked Bush among the five worst presidents (39 out of 43), with Andrew Johnson solidly occupying the very bottom of the list. Johnson is a particular favorite for the bottom of the pile because of his impeachment (although he was acquitted in the Senate by one vote in May 1868), his complete mishandling of Reconstruction policy, his inept dealings with his Cabinet and Congress, his drinking problem (he was probably inebriated at his inauguration), his bristling personality, and his enormous sense of self-importance. He once suggested that God saw fit to have Lincoln assassinated so that he could become president. A Northern senator averred that "Andrew Johnson was the queerest character that ever occupied the White House."

Queerest? Perhaps. But worst? Johnson actually has some stiff competition for the bottom rung of the presidential rankings, not only from W, but also from one of his own contemporaries, James Buchanan, the fifteenth president.

Interestingly enough, Johnson and Buchanan, two of the worst presidents, stand as bookends for arguably the best: Abraham Lincoln. But Lincoln's greatness might never have manifested itself if it weren't for Buchanan's utter and complete incompetency, and for that reason I cast my ballot in favor of the fifteenth president as our absolutely worst chief executive ever....

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Richard Gilman - 2/25/2011

Without meaning to demean a president I respect tremendously, I think that one thing needs to be pointed out about Abraham Lincoln that apparently never is. If Andrew Johnson is one of the worst presidents we ever had, and I think there's no question about that, shouldn't we hold Lincoln accountable for putting him in that position? Any major party presidential nominee is choosing a potential president when he selects his running mate. Any president knows that he can die in office, and Lincoln in particular was aware of the anger and even hatred millions of southerners felt toward him. He should have known the chances of assassination were much higher in his case than they had been for other presidents. So shouldn't he bear serious responsibility for the awful presidency of Andrew Johnson? And shouldn't this be factored into our assessment of his leadership? I wish it were otherwise, but this is the reality.

James W Loewen - 2/25/2011

In the longer article, LaFantasie states that researchers who claim James Buchanan was homosexual are wrong. He actually brings out the story of Buchanan's brief engagement in his twenties as evidence and to explain why Buchanan never married or had a serious relationship with a woman again. He does not seem to know that Ann Coleman, his fiance, broke off the engagement because, in the words of a friend, "Mr. Buchanan did not treat her with that affection that she expected from the man she would marry."
LaFantasie writes further that claims Buchanan was gay rest "solely on the fact that he roomed for several years with a close friend, William Rufus King..." Not true. I include conclusive evidence that Pres. Buchanan WAS gay on my book, LIES ACROSS AMERICA, which has sold almost 150,000 copies and is hardly an obscure source.