Who Was the Worst President in U.S. History?

By: Kate Morgan  | 
View of the White House on cloudy day
For the past 40 years, historians have rated the worst president consistently. Fandrade

Anyone who pays attention to American history and politics has probably wondered: Who was the worst president ever? Since 1980, the Siena College Research Institute (SCRI) has been trying to come up with a definitive answer by periodically surveying more than 140 presidential scholars, historians and political scientists.

"The scholars must publish in peer-reviewed journals on the presidency or individual presidents, publish popular manuscripts, or teach courses at colleges or universities that focus on the presidency," explains Don Levy, SCRI's director, via email. They rank the best and worst presidents according to 20 separate categories, including party leadership, ability to compromise, foreign policy accomplishments, intelligence and moral authority.

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Over the past 40 years, the same five presidents have held the top spots. In 2022, the best five were:

  1. Franklin Roosevelt
  2. Abraham Lincoln
  3. George Washington
  4. Theodore Roosevelt
  5. Thomas Jefferson

The presidents at the bottom have also mostly stayed the same, with one exception. The worst in 2022 were (with the worst in the top spot):

  1. Andrew Johnson
  2. James Buchanan
  3. Donald Trump
  4. Warren Harding
  5. Franklin Pierce

"For the most part, our best presidents directed the country through periods of crisis," says Levy, "while our worst failed to lead our country pursuant to our values and ideals when facing critical tests." For instance, FDR was the highest-ranked president in the 2022 survey, and he demonstrated exceptional crisis management during World War II.

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Why Is Andrew Johnson Considered the Worst President?

Andrew Johnson
Andrew Johnson is often considered the worst American president by historians. His racist views, his sheer incompetence in federal office and that fact that he was often drunk all helped to give him a low rating.
mikroman6 / Getty Images

Bryan Craig, senior researcher at the University of Virginia's Miller Center, which specializes in presidential scholarship and history, says those names ranked at the bottom in the eyes of scholars and historians are no surprise.

Johnson was originally elected into office as vice president and stepped into the presidency after Lincoln's 1865 assassination. His old-fashioned Southern views, which strongly supported states' rights, put him at odds with a Republican congress.

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"Some major reasons Johnson is at the bottom are his reaction to Reconstruction and his incendiary rhetoric," says Craig via email. "He pushed back against Republican legislation and vetoed the Civil Rights Act, the Military Reconstruction Act and the Freedmen's Bureau Act, all pieces of legislation that would improve the lives and rights of formerly enslaved people. He did not stand in the way of Democrats returning to power in the Southern states." Congress passed all these acts over Johnson's veto.

In 1866, in a speech Johnson was giving on Washington's Birthday, he accused Republican leaders of wanting to "pervert or destroy" the principles of government, Craig adds. In several speeches, Johnson personally attacked his Republican opponents with abusive language, appearing to have had too much to drink. Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act, which took away the president's ability to remove federal officials without the Senate's approval. After he fired the Secretary of War, Johnson had 11 articles of impeachment leveled against him, "citing his violation of the Tenure of Office Act and charging that he had brought disgrace and ridicule on Congress," as historian Elizabeth Varon puts it on the Miller Center website.

"He is one of only three presidents that have been impeached by the House," says Craig. However, in the end the Senate voted not to impeach Johnson by a margin of one vote.

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The Rest of the Bottom Five Presidents

James Buchanan
James Buchanan has been ranked as the second-worst president on the survey since 2002.
mikroman6/Getty Images

James Buchanan (whom historians ranked as second to last) served from 1857 to 1861 as the leader of an increasingly divided nation. That's part of why he gets so much criticism, says Craig. "President Buchanan did not do enough to help avert a civil war," he says. "Although Buchanan felt slavery was a moral evil, he told Supreme Court Justice Robert Grier, a fellow Pennsylvanian, to vote against Dredd Scott in a famous case before the U.S. Supreme Court. His administration did not confront Southern leaders in their slavery cause. Seven states seceded under his administration, and he felt the federal government did not have the authority to intervene."

In fact, Craig calls Buchanan the worst president overall because his policies ushered in the "worst period in the country's history." Buchanan's not alone in taking the blame for the Civil War, though. Franklin Pierce, who also ranks in the bottom five, was the president directly before Buchanan.

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"Like Buchanan, Pierce did not ease the growing sectional rift over slavery," Craig says. "He used his presidential powers to get the Kansas-Nebraska Act passed in 1854, an act that repealed the Missouri Compromise [an 1820 law that had allowed slavery to continue in Missouri but banned it in the rest of the Louisiana purchase lands north of the southern border of Missouri] and allowed popular sovereignty. However, the act only made the situation worse."

When it comes to Harding, Craig goes on, historians tend to rank him near the bottom for two major reasons: "His short length in office and the Teapot Dome Scandal, the biggest presidential scandal until Watergate." (Leave it to Richard Nixon to break that kind of record.)

The Teapot Dome bribery scandal involved rights to oil reserves. While Harding wasn't directly implicated, he was associated with the wrongdoers, and it wrecked his reputation. "Harding's administration also faced a scandal in the Veterans Bureau," says Craig, "and these corruption scandals stained his legacy."

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What About Donald Trump?

President Donald Trump
President Donald Trump delivers a speech at a campaign rally in 2018. Historians currently put him at No. 3 on the worst presidents list. Evan El-Amin/Shutterstock

Andrew Johnson, James Buchanan, Warren Harding and Franklin Pierce have all been in the bottom five in each of the seven surveys conducted by Siena College Research Institute since 1982.

"Donald Trump is the only new member of that ignominious club," says Levy. "The scholars only ranked Trump in the top half of the list in two categories – Luck and Willing to Take Risks – though that wasn't enough to pull up his overall score."

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It's no stretch to call Trump the most polarizing president in history. That, plus his "incendiary rhetoric, and the impact of his lies (including the false claim of winning the 2020 election)" is what puts him near the bottom, says Craig.

Whether he'll stay there is a matter for history to decide. "It is possible that Trump could move his position on the list as time goes on. However, I suspect that his change would be limited," adds Craig. "Another important reason is his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection."

Levy says rankings have changed over the survey's 40-year history, as scholars have time to study and reflect on a president's life and legacy. Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, and Ulysses Grant have all risen in the ranks, while Woodrow Wilson and Andrew Jackson have fallen.

"Grant moved up the list over the years as historians took a closer look at his response to civil rights and [put] less focus on the corruption," says Craig. "Generally speaking, it's hard to understand the impact of a president until farther out in history."

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