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The 8 Worst Presidents Ever

Eight good reasons to keep an eye on the executive branch.

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There's something about the office of the presidency that attracts narcissists and megalomaniacs. While some presidents shredded the Constitution during a wartime panic (I'm looking at you, Abraham Lincoln), these eight leaders went above and beyond that to discernibly shift our country a little bit closer to the edge of fascism. Oh, sure, none of them were all bad--but on civil liberties issues, these eight men are the worst of the worst.

8. George W. Bush

George W. Bush
Photo: Alex Wong / Getty Images.
Some political commentators claim that George W. Bush will go down in history as the worst president ever, but I don't believe that. It would be more accurate to describe him as the second-worst president of the postwar era.

Climbing to the nation's highest office after overseeing more lethal injections than any other Texas governor in history, before or since, Bush soon made a name for himself by using the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives to reward his political friends, using the Department of Justice to punish his political enemies, and using the fear of international terrorism to radically expand executive power.

7. Richard M. Nixon

Richard M. Nixon
Photo: National Archives.
Both LBJ and Nixon abused FBI surveillance programs to unconstitutionally monitor the activities of activist groups, but at least LBJ worked to advance civil rights reforms.

The same can't be said for Nixon, who stonewalled further progress on civil rights, created the federal War on Drugs apparatus, and expanded the power of the presidency so much that his administration is still the "imperial presidency" by which all other unitary executive presidencies are judged.

6. John Adams

John Adams
Public domain. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
There are things to like about John Adams--were it not for his support of the U.S. Supreme Court, there wouldn't really be one--but the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 made him the only president in U.S. history to support and sign legislation specifically written to criminalize his opponent's political campaign.

Frustrated by supporters of Thomas Jefferson in the press who criticized Adams, the thin-skinned president supported new federal sedition laws targeting anyone making unsubstantiated remarks about a government official. Adams had some of Jefferson's most prominent supporters arrested under the law, but it didn't do him much good--Jefferson won the presidency in 1800, and Adams' Federalist Party never won national office again.

5. James Buchanan

James Buchanan
Photo: Library of Congress.
Some presidents are associated, directly or indirectly, with major Supreme Court rulings of their tenure. When we think of Miranda v. Arizona (1966), we might lump it together with Johnson's Great Society reforms. When we think of Korematsu v. United States (1944), we can't help but think of Roosevelt's mass internment of Japanese Americans.

But when we think of Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), we don't think of James Buchanan--and we should. Buchanan, who made pro-slavery policy a central tenet of his administration, boasted in advance of the ruling that the issue of slavery expansion was about to be resolved "speedily and finally" by his friend Chief Justice Roger Taney's decision, which defined African Americans as subhuman non-citizens.

4. Millard Fillmore

Millard Fillmore
Photo: Library of Congress.
When Millard Fillmore took office in 1850, slaveowners had a problem: When slaves escaped to free states, law enforcement agencies in those states refused to return them to their "owners." Fillmore, who claimed to "detest" slavery but invariably supported it, had the Fugitive Slave Act of 1853 passed to remedy this problem--not only requiring free states to return slaves to their "owners," but also making it a federal crime not to assist in doing so. Under the Fugitive Slave Act, hosting a fugitive slave on one's property became dangerous.

Fillmore's bigotry wasn't limited to African Americans. He was also noted for his prejudice against the growing number of Irish Catholic immigrants, which made him extremely popular in nativist circles.

3. Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson
Public domain. Image courtesy of the U.S. Senate.
In addition to being the biggest slaveowner in the southwestern United States, Jackson was a believer in Manifest Destiny--what he and others considered the God-given right of whites to conquer North America, from coast to coast.

When Jackson discovered gold on Cherokee land in Georgia, he simply ignored existing treaties and had one of his own agents, John Ridge, "negotiate" the Treaty of New Echota on behalf of the Cherokees--forcing their displacement on what became known as the "Trail of Tears."

Jackson is also the only president in U.S. history to openly defy a Supreme Court ruling. In response to Worcester v. Georgia (1832), Jackson was reported to have said: "John Marshall has made his decision. Now let him enforce it!"

2. Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson
Photo: Library of Congress.
Wilson, former president of Princeton University, was no thug--but his contempt for those first-generation immigrants he deemed "[h]yphenated Americans" and threatened to have "crushed out" played into the nativist and anti-communist sentiments of his era, bringing the United States closer to fascism than it had ever come before or since.

The lowlights of his administration include the Sedition Act of 1918 (which criminalized all radical criticism of the government), the Palmer Raids (in which he ordered the arrest and attempted illegal deportation of over 10,000 people), and numerous specific instances in which he ordered dissenters to be silenced. America under Woodrow Wilson was a nation under lockdown.

1. Andrew Johnson

Andrew Johnson
Photo: Library of Congress.
"This is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am President, it shall be a government for white men."
-- Andrew Johnson, 1866

Johnson was the worst president in U.S. history. It's not because he created Jim Crow, although he did. It's not because he fought passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, although he did. And it's not because he failed to create a way forward for Southerners of all races, condemning the South to over a century of poverty--though he did that, too.

No, it's because he did all of this because he could. He wasn't a wartime president; he faced no new terrorist threats. He just inherited the presidency and used it to push his own prejudices. History has never forgiven him for that, nor should it.
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