• Judging the worst presidents

    BY Abram Conrad

    (Originally published on June 7, 2010)

    What do William Henry Harrison, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, and Warren Harding have in common? They each earned a one-star rating on our Visual History of the American Presidency. It’s not just us — a number of scholars consistently rank these men in the bottom tier of the nation’s presidents.

    Judging poor presidents is difficult. Arguably, no president has acted with purpose and malice to weaken the nation. If — as my last post discusses — a good president is known for rising above his era and leading with optimism and confidence, then a bad president is one who shrinks from the responsibility of leadership. Overarching issues of the time are ignored in deference to political expediency; important decisions are bungled. We also considered those whose tenures were cut short by death, like William Henry Harrison, to have been similarly inconsequential.

    What most often separates the one-star from the two-star presidents is context. We viewed progress as a net positive, and inertia (or regression) as a net negative: those who favored continuation of the status quo find themselves at the bottom of our rankings. The presidents in this lowest tier ignored or mishandled an overwhelming issue at the point in time during which it needed the most action and resolution.

    As for the rest of the presidents – those who find themselves in the middle tier, with either three or four stars – they are the presidents who were somewhat perfect for their era. They did not necessarily stand out; did not necessarily bring transformational change, but also did not ignore or avoid pressing matters.  In some cases, they simply continued policies of their predecessors, and in others were not faced with era-defining issues. They may not have provided outstanding leadership, but they led the nation on a steady course.

    Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be posting the presidents by ranking, along with short explanations as to why they find themselves there.  None of our determinations will likely be earth-shattering, but there are some who may be controversial. I invite comments & questions as the blogging continues!

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