In an opinion piece for the New York Times, Princeton historian Sean Wilentz suggests that President Donald Trump is on track to rank among America’s worst presidents. “Mr. Trump’s first year has been an unremitting parade of disgraces that have demeaned him as well as the dignity of his office,” Wilentz writes, “portend[ing] a very unhappy ending.”
Interestingly, twelve years ago Wilentz was speculating about George W. Bush being the worst president in American history. “From time to time, after hours,” he wrote, “I kick back with my colleagues at Princeton to argue idly about which president really was the worst of them all.” The growing consensus, he reported, was that “George W. Bush is in serious contention for the title of worst ever.”
I am not a fan of presidential rankings. Above all, it is quite difficult — maybe even practically impossible — to develop sufficient expertise on all 44 presidents to rank them all. This is even the case for academics, who begin to specialize when they begin to write their dissertations. Hardly anybody knows enough to rank all of them. Idle academic chitchat in the faculty lounge is all well and good, but that’s all it is. Idle.
Indeed, what academics in particular appreciate is that the institution of the presidency has evolved over the decades — and not just in the scope of presidential power but also in expectations of what a president can and cannot do. So ranking presidents is like comparing apples to oranges. A small example: We take for granted the annual State of the Union address, but between Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson, presidents delivered those messages in writing.
Still, with these difficulties aside, it is pretty easy to identify the best and the worst.
The worst is not Donald Trump (contra Wilentz 2018) nor is it George W. Bush (contra Wilentz 2006). Whatever your objections to those presidents may be, they unequivocally pale in comparison to the failure of leadership between 1853 and 1869, with the blessed exception of Abraham Lincoln.
I’m talking, of course, about Franklin Pierce (1853–1857), James Buchanan (1857–1861), and Andrew Johnson (1865–1869).
The problem of 1850–70 got down to the essential question about the American nation, whether the Declaration of Independence applied to all Americans, or just whites.
All three failed in the same way — fatally mishandling the moment that the existential contradiction inherent to the American Founding reached a point of crisis. I’m talking, of course, about the issue of slavery, and later on the matter of Reconstruction. Pierce pushed the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and allowed the residents of the territories to decide the issue of slavery themselves. It was a disaster, and Pierce — a northerner whose electoral coalition depended partially on southern slaveowners — should have known better than to capitulate to southern threats. Buchanan was just as bad, if not worse. He was a northerner whose main support came from South, and his approach was to offer the South just about everything it asked. And when secession came, he claimed he had no power to stop the unlawful act of disunion. Johnson was elected vice president on a national-unity ticket and ascended to the White House when Lincoln was assassinated. At first he was amenable to a vigorous Reconstruction, but he softened his position in pursuit of reelection. He figured that going easy on the South would enable him to reconstruct the same Jacksonian coalition that had powered Pierce and Buchanan to victory.
Depending on your personal preferences, you might rank one worse than the other (I personally find Buchanan the most loathsome), but they are all basically the same. The problem of 1850–70 got down to the essential question about the American nation, whether the Declaration of Independence applied to all Americans, or just whites. Lincoln came to understand this — as did many politicians, and indeed many Americans, during this age. But these three, blinded by prejudice, bewitched by ambition, and burdened by incompetence, could not. They made a bad situation much, much worse.
Comparing Trump, Bush, or anybody else to these three men is not just technically incorrect but profoundly wrong, for it buries the most tragic and lamentable episode of American history under a mountain of presentist grievances that, in historical retrospect, must necessarily come across as quaint.
Wilentz especially should know better, for he has written one of the best modern accounts of Reconstruction. He knows full well just how terrible executive leadership was during this period, and how this failure tore the country into pieces.
American historians, particularly specialists in the Civil War and Reconstruction period, should endeavor to remind Americans of their good fortune, and not fan the fires of overwrought hyperbole.