Who Were The Worst U.S. Presidents In History — And What Made Them So Bad?

Published November 30, 2022
Updated December 10, 2022

From Herbert Hoover's mishandling of the Great Depression to George W. Bush's unpopular war in Iraq, go inside the stories of some of America's worst-ranking presidents.

Ever since George Washington first took the oath of office in 1789, scores of men have followed in his footsteps. But not all of America’s presidents have left their terms with a glowing reputation. A number of these leaders have been harshly judged by history for their scandals, political decisions, inaction in the face of crises, and even for dying too quickly. And some have even been called the worst presidents in American history.

Many of them, like Franklin Pierce, Millard Fillmore, and James Buchanan, either fanned the flames of conflict in the pre-Civil War years or stood by as tension built between the North and the South.

Others, like Warren G. Harding and Richard Nixon, are remembered for their scandals. And one president, William Henry Harrison, routinely tops the list of America’s worst presidents simply because he died just 31 days into his administration.

Historians judge that these men failed in different ways, but they all left a similar mark on American history as some of the country’s most unpopular presidents. Learn more about them in the gallery below:

William Henry Harrison Portrait
General William Henry Harrison
William Henry Harrison
John Tyler Hearing Of Harrison's Death
Who Were The Worst U.S. Presidents In History — And What Made Them So Bad?
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The Worst Presidents Of The 19th Century

Many of the men featured in the photo gallery above are considered to be some of America's worst presidents because of their inaction or poor decisions in the 19th century as the country hurtled toward the Civil War.

Then, deep divisions between North and South, and between free states and slave states, threatened to plunge the nation into an armed conflict. But many presidents twiddled their thumbs or even exacerbated the tension. Take John Tyler, who became president in 1841 following the sudden death of William Henry Harrison, which happened just 31 days into Harrison's term.

Worst Presidents

GraphicaArtis/Getty ImagesJohn Tyler was an unpopular president, but history has judged him especially harshly for his actions after his term.

Pushed into power, Tyler advocated for states' rights, even as his fellow Whigs in Congress tried to enact policies like a national bank. He elicited such ire from his party that they expelled him and introduced a resolution to impeach him (though it went nowhere). But Tyler's animosity with his party isn't the only reason why he's often seen as one of the worst presidents.

Following Abraham Lincoln's election in 1860, Tyler initially tried to broker peace between the North and South. But once it became clear that Southern states would secede, the former president threw his weight behind the Confederacy. He voted for secession in his home state of Virginia, and, after he died in 1862, his coffin was draped in a Confederate flag.

Before long, The New York Times foreshadowed Tyler's future unpopularity after his death when the newspaper called him "the most unpopular public man that had ever held any office in the United States."

But though Tyler and other unpopular 19th-century presidents have been judged for their inability to avert the Civil War, low-ranking 20th-century presidents are better remembered for their scandals and unpopular politics.

Unpopular Presidents Of The 20th Century

Some 20th-century presidents, like Richard Nixon and Warren G. Harding, are often considered among America's worst presidents because of the scandals that rocked their administrations while they were in office.

Indeed, Harding is perhaps best remembered for the Teapot Dome scandal in the early 1920s, when the former Secretary of the Interior, Albert Fall, accepted bribes from oil companies in exchange for the right to drill on federal land. The president is reputed to have said that he had "no trouble with my enemies" but his friends "keep me walking the floor nights."

Warren G. Harding

Hulton Archive/Getty ImagesWarren G. Harding and his wife in 1921.

About half a century later, Richard Nixon shocked the nation by resigning amidst the Watergate scandal. Then, burglars connected to Nixon's reelection committee were caught trying to bug the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. Though there's no definitive proof that Nixon ordered the break-in, he did cover it up, and he decided to resign rather than face an impeachment trial.

Other presidents from modern history, like Herbert Hoover and George W. Bush, have been judged for the questionable political decisions that they made. Hoover became known for mishandling the Great Depression. And Bush has been critiqued for his unpopular war in Iraq, for his response to Hurricane Katrina, and for his leadership during the Great Recession.

One informal survey of 109 historians even showed that 61 percent of them thought that Bush might be remembered as the worst American president of all time, according to the History News Network.

But you can judge for yourself. Look through some of the worst-ranking American presidents in the gallery above, and see who you think might be the most flawed leader who ever set foot in the Oval Office.

After reading about some of the worst presidents in American history, look through these images of American presidents as young men. Or, see why some believe that President Zachary Taylor was secretly poisoned.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
Jaclyn Anglis
Jaclyn is the senior managing editor at All That's Interesting. She holds a Master's degree in journalism from the City University of New York and a Bachelor's degree in English writing and history (double major) from DePauw University. She is interested in American history, true crime, modern history, pop culture, and science.
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Fraga, Kaleena. "Who Were The Worst U.S. Presidents In History — And What Made Them So Bad?." AllThatsInteresting.com, November 30, 2022, https://allthatsinteresting.com/worst-presidents. Accessed June 23, 2024.