Just for fun on this patriotic holiday, and to provoke some thought-provoking debate, I thought I’d list a few of America’s worst Chief Executives in our history and the reasons I think they are so bad.
Abraham Lincoln. He would probably not occupy the list of any professional historian. But Lincoln led what amounted to a revolution against self-determination of peoples, which is what the Declaration of Independence is based on, to overthrow the Union of our Fathers and replace it with a centralized state.
Lincoln stretched the Constitution past its bounds, trampled the rights of the Southern states, ignored Supreme Court rulings, threatened to arrest the Chief Justice, waged war without congressional consent, appropriated money without Congress, suspended the writ of habeas corpus, imprisoned at least 14,000 American citizens without charges or trial, seized and censored telegraph offices, shut down hundreds of newspapers while arresting and imprisoning editors, allowed his army to attack civilians, occupied states that remained loyal to the Union, illegally divided Virginia, sacked the duly-elected legislature in Maryland, and interfered with the electoral process in several states. Yet he’s routinely praised as our greatest President.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR set out to deliberately change the nation’s fundamental economic system of capitalism to a more centralized economy. FDR made repeated statements that the Great Depression was caused by a failure of capitalism and the free enterprise system, which he said needed to be overhauled. This was the greatest expansion and power grab in our history. And as scholar Jim Powell has pointed out, the New Deal failed miserably as an economic recovery program and actually made the Depression worse. There were new taxes, like social security, which hit the worker and the employer. The top rate of the income tax hit 94% and there were new excise taxes and corporate taxes. FDR also protected labor unions, filed 150 antitrust suits, controlled prices and wages, and took the nation off the gold standard. All while the Federal Reserve pulled a third of the money out of circulation. No wonder the depression worsened.
With FDR, the nature of our federal government was altered permanently, as now more and more of our citizens look to Washington for help and solutions, rather than looking to ourselves as individuals.
Among FDR’s other shortcomings: He lied us into World War II, rather than lead us, and, by executive order and without trial, imprisoned thousands of American citizens in internment camps solely based on their race. And this is the man who has a multi-million dollar monument in Washington, D.C. A few of the typical “worst presidents” never would have done anything so abhorrent to constitutional government.
Woodrow Wilson. Wilson caused irreparable damage to our republic in my opinion, and according to one scholar, brought on World War II by involving the US in World War I. Had the US stayed out of it, the war most likely would have resulted in a negotiated settlement, which meant there never would have been a Treaty of Versailles, impossible reparations, and a humiliation of Germany, all which led to the rise of Adolf Hitler.
Wilson was a Progressive, and he, like FDR later, sought to change the nation’s fundamental institutions. During this Progressive Era, two new amendments were added to the Constitution that radically altered it, as much as did the Fourteenth. The first, though passed before Wilson entered office but with his support, was the Sixteenth, which gave the federal government the right to impose and collect direct taxes on the people without those taxes being apportioned. This simply means the government could levy an income tax. This tax was only supposed to be imposed on the rich and on corporations, but as with all other government promises, it too was broken. By the time Wilson left office the top rate skyrocketed from two percent in 1913 to seventy-seven percent in 1918.
The Seventeenth Amendment also met Wilson’s approval and is much more damaging than many people realize. This amendment took away the representatives of the states – United States Senators. We now popularly elect our senators, but this is not what the Founders intended. And with the states losing proper representation in Washington, states’ rights and state sovereignty endured a crippling blow.
In addition to the income tax, Wilson led the creation of the Federal Reserve, which placed the US economy in the hands of bankers without a shred of oversight by Congress or the President. This was one of the most disastrous policies in US history.
Lyndon Baines Johnson. Only one word needs to be uttered to describe the disastrous presidency of LBJ – Vietnam. LBJ generally receives a middle-of-the-road rating because his domestic policy was good, according to the Left, but his foreign policy was a disaster. The latter I buy and I don’t believe there are any serious scholars who would disagree but the former is another story.
With domestic policy, LBJ’s Great Society was a monstrous addition to the New Deal. But, whereas the New Deal at least required work, in the form of works projects, to receive aid, the Great Society took from the American worker and gave to the non-worker, making direct cash payments to those who are not required to work. Johnson believed poverty could be wiped out by spending a few billion dollars, but in real terms there’s a lot more poverty today. As for public expenditures, we have spent, in welfare and welfare-related spending since 1964, over $22 trillion! I believe we can chalk this one up as a failure and the greatest robbery of American taxpayers in our history. And, what’s more, his Medicare and Medicaid programs have today, along with Social Security, more than $200 trillion in unfunded liabilities.
As for foreign policy, I will let it speak for itself. Vietnam taught us how not to fight a war. I wonder if we have really learned from this lesson?
Jimmy Carter. Let’s be honest with ourselves here – just what did this man get right? As I often like to joke about Carter, it’s really not fair to criticize him because he only had two failures during his presidency – foreign policy and domestic policy. But seriously this is not too far from the truth. When Carter left the White House in 1981, the United States was not only considerably weaker on the world stage, but downright humiliated. With a U.S. embassy seized and hostages held in Tehran, Carter looked as inept, incompetent and as pathetically weak as he actually was. There was no facade to cover his yellow streak. And we paid the price for it, and according to some, are still paying it.
The economy was in shambles as well, with inflation, unemployment, and interest rates all in double-digits; the country nearly fell into a depression, and viewing the situation in the everyday lives of the American people, we were in one. And as one scholar has noted, Jimmy Carter proved that the presidency is not the place for on-the-job training. There are some, however, who would point to Carter’s negotiation of the Camp David Accords in 1978, but, it must be noted that the foundation of this agreement was laid in the Nixon Administration, as Carter simply picked up the pieces from what Kissinger had begun but had not been able to complete. And given the fact that both Israel and Egypt are the two largest recipients of American foreign aid, isn’t it highly probable that we are actually paying them not to fight?
There are certainly others we can point to as failed Presidents: Ulysses S. Grant, Herbert Hoover, Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon, and, of course, Barack Obama. But these are just a few who make the top of my list.
Who makes your top five?
Ryan S. Walters is an independent historian, editor of Mississippi Conservative Daily, and a contributor and book review editor at the Abbeville Institute.