Who is the most unfortunate US president

US presidents : Tops & Flops in the White House

It is a curious custom that US historians and politicians have had for more than six decades. Together they regularly compile rankings of the best and worst American presidents.

The process is almost always the same: a polling institute, newspapers like the "Wall Street Journal" or a scientist select dozens to hundreds of researchers according to region, political position and other criteria. They are asked to rate the performance of each US head of government on a five-point scale. The order is created and published on the basis of the average values. What sounds like a joke - trying to rate political performance on a point system - isn't just seen as good entertainment in the US. The results are excitedly discussed in specialist journals. In each president's biography it is noted how this performs in rankings.

The results are informative in any case, especially their continuity. Since the historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr. asked 55 colleagues for the first time in 1948 to rate each president as "significant", "almost significant", "average", "below average" or "unsuccessful" for the magazine "Life", the same heads of state have consistently been ranked elected to the best: Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Franklin D. Roosevelt always lead the first three places - one head of government each from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. The experts judge the incumbents of recent history rather cautiously. Of them, only Ronald Reagan makes it into the top ten now and then. Jimmy Carter, George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton only make it into midfield. Richard Nixon even ranks in the top ten. The presidential hit parades also show how the view of history is changing. Appreciation for John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson declined with the years that rose for Ronald Reagan, Harry S. Truman, and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Researchers prefer presidents other than the general public. In a 2007 survey, US citizens rated Lincoln, in line with scientists, as the most capable head of state. But the subsequent three popular favorites - Reagan, Kennedy, and Clinton - are not among the top five scholars.

Statistics also reveal that Democratic presidents were rated slightly better than Republican presidents or those of the Whigs and Federalists in the early years. Heads of government with a longer term of office were given more favorable marks than those with a short term. Most of the favored were at war before or during their presidency. Many respected heads of state initially polarized - and then united the nation. "They all took risks in order to pursue their ideals," summed up historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who, like his father, initiated a ranking in 1996.

George W. Bush is in office until January 20th. Only then can his era be assessed fairly. But it doesn't look good for him. As early as 2006, five years after he took office, the Siena Research polling institute asked 744 historians and political scientists about him. Around 80 percent rated Bush as "below average" or "unsuccessful".

ITEM 1: Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865)

The victory of the northern over the southern states in the civil war was imminent. On April 14, 1865, a fanatical southerner stormed into the president's box in the Ford Theater in Washington. The assassin shot two bullets into Abraham Lincoln's head from behind. The 1.92 meter man died that night. Lincoln had assumed the presidency four years earlier in one of the most dramatic situations in US history: tensions between the north and south of the country intensified, and the southern states saw their sovereignty threatened by the north's criticism of their slave economy. Lincoln was a moderate opponent of slavery. Even before he became the first Republican to become president, several southern states left the Union and proclaimed the Confederate States of America. The civil war that followed killed around 600,000 people. In December 1865, slavery was banned. This, as well as maintaining the unity of the United States, was thanks to Lincoln.

ITEM 2: George Washington (

Plantation owner George Washington wrote to a friend after his marriage that he hoped “to find more happiness in seclusion” than in a “busy world”. It should turn out differently. First he was Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army in the War of Independence, and later Chairman of the Constituent Assembly. After all, as the first President of the United States, he shaped the exercise of office with his non-partisan and cooperative style of government. In terms of foreign policy, he decreed neutrality for the USA. After two terms in office he decided not to be re-elected, thereby justifying the voluntary custom of no longer governing. It was not until 1951 that the restriction to two terms of office was regulated by law. One of Washington's reasons was rather profane - it was the journalists to blame: He no longer wanted to be attacked by a bunch of infamous scribes in public pamphlets. Before his death in 1799, the future capital was named after him.

ITEM 3: Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933–1945)
No other US president ruled for as long (twelve years) and was re-elected as often (three times) as Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The Democrat led the nation out of the Great Depression through World War II to the status of a superpower. Since his serious illness in 1921, Theodore Roosevelt's distant relative could only stand with crutches. Nevertheless, he gave his people confidence in the crisis. His proposition that the only thing the nation had to fear is fear itself became the basic motivation for his presidency. His reform program "New Deal" regulated the economy and created social security. Roosevelt controlled stock trading, launched a work program, introduced minimum wages and unemployment benefits. He was an internationalist, but isolationism dominated public opinion. With the attack by Japan on Pearl Harbor and the German declaration of war, he received support for entering the war on the side of Great Britain and the Soviet Union. But shortly before the victory he died.

ITEM 4: Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809)
Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the USA, had his greatest coup in 1803. He had actually instructed his envoys to buy only the city of New Orleans and the surrounding area from France. But Napoleon needed money and offered the stunned negotiators the two million square kilometer colony of Louisiana for $ 15 million. The US immediately agreed, thereby doubling its territory. Far from this spectacular business, the country experienced an era of growth under Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence. Roads, schools and waterways were built. In terms of foreign policy, the well-educated refused to interfere in European conflicts. Because of this attitude, he made his most unfortunate decision in 1807. In order to remain neutral in the war between England and France, he forbade US ships to call at foreign ports and foreign ships to anchor in US ports. As a result, his country's trade came to an almost complete standstill.

ITEM 5: Theodore Roosevelt (1901–1909)
When Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt became Vice President, he planned to pass the time in the uninfluential office with law school. Six months later, President William McKinley died as a result of an assassination attempt and Roosevelt became the youngest US head of state at the age of 42. Not only his party rival Mark Hanna was amazed: “The damn cowboy is president!” Roosevelt became known as the commander of the “Rough Riders” volunteer corps in the Spanish-American War. The Republican also followed his principle of “speak gently and carry a big stick” as president, especially in relation to Latin America. He aspired to the world leadership role of the USA. In the Russo-Japanese War he distinguished himself as a mediator, for which he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906. Domestically, he campaigned for the control of corporate mergers and for nature conservation - five national parks can be traced back to him. After his second term in office, he ran as a candidate for the newly founded Progressive Party in 1912 - and failed.

FLOP 1: James Buchanan (1857–1861)

James Buchanan is considered the man who almost gambled away the unity of the United States. As soon as he took office he was warned by his future Justice Minister Edwin Stanton: “You sleep on a volcano.” Stanton was right. Several southern states left the Union during Buchanan's presidency, and Buchanan watched largely idle. He had not succeeded in ending the escalating dispute over the slave issue. One reason for this was the clear partisanship of the northern Democrat for the interests of the southern states - although he personally opposed slavery. The reputation of the former foreign minister also suffered from the corruption of his government team. The only bachelor in the White House to date renounced the candidacy for a second term of office, he had never aspired to it anyway. Before Buchanan died in 1868, he was certain that historiography would rehabilitate him - but this has not yet happened.

FLOP 2: Warren G. Harding (1921-1923)
He was the first candidate that movie stars got involved. Warren Gamaliel Harding achieved an overwhelming election victory. As president, the newspaper publisher then brought politicians friends from his native Ohio into the government. But soon he complained that it was not his enemies but his friends who did not let him sleep at night. The first cases of corruption became known in early 1923. Harding, however, did little to clarify the situation. When he was on a trip to promote his politics in the summer, he died unexpectedly after only two years in office, presumably as a result of a stroke. After his death, the extent of the bribery affair became known. Interior Minister Albert B. Fall was sentenced to imprisonment for accepting bribes on the sale of state oil fields. The judgment of the future President Herbert Hoover of his predecessor Harding was devastating: "He was not the man with the experience or intellectual ability that the position requires."

FLOP 3: Franklin Pierce (1853-1857)
Even in the United States, Franklin Pierce is little known to this day. In his inaugural address, the former brigadier general assumed that the dispute over slavery had been resolved and announced expansionism in foreign policy. In fact, the Democrat provoked conflicts with Spain and Great Britain, bought land from Mexico, and incorporated dozens of islands into the United States through a questionable law. Secretary of War and closest adviser to Pierce was Jefferson Davis. Davis became president of the breakaway southern states four years later. Although Pierce came from the north, he sided with the slave owners in conflicts. Contrary to a compromise that had long been found, he advocated a law that enabled the residents of the newly formed territories of Kansas and Nebraska to decide whether to continue or to ban slavery. Pierce lost support in his party. She did not put him up for re-election. Pierce, who had alcohol problems, died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1869.

FLOP 4: Andrew Johnson (1865-1869)
When he was sworn in as Vice President, Andrew Johnson caused astonishment: he was obviously drunk. When President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated shortly afterwards, Johnson succeeded him. The Democrat and Southern Senator had remained on the side of the Union during the Civil War, but he still advocated slavery until 1863 - only after that he stopped. After the victory of the north, slavery was abolished. In the White House, the former tailor was faced with the task of reintegrating the destroyed south into the Union. He was mild in dealing with the loser, issued a comprehensive amnesty and helped the elite regain power. He blocked a legal initiative for more rights for freed slaves. The growing conflict between President and Congress culminated in an impeachment trial against Johnson that narrowly failed. The Republicans did not nominate him for re-election, but instead put Ulysses S. Grant on.

FLOP 5: Ulysses S. Grant (1869–1877)
Ulysses Simpson Grant was Commander in Chief of the Union Forces during the Civil War and was considered a hero after the victory. Even if the future President James A. Garfield wrote in his diary of Grant's persistence as a commanding officer: "I'm not sure whether it can be called greatness or stupidity." Grant won the election with the promise that the south would flourish and bring blacks the right to vote. He actually implemented the latter for men in 1870, but tolerated that their rights were restricted again in the south. He could not prevent the goings-on of the Ku Klux Klan. He also lacked determination in the fight against corruption, and numerous cases of bribery in his government became known. The planned doubling of his salaries and that of members of Congress and Chief Justice also brought Grant's government into disrepute. His attempt to run for a third term failed and his brokerage firm went bankrupt.

To home page