These American Presidents Were Actually Terrible People

Not all American presidents set a good example during their time in the White House. Your take on the most hated presidents probably depends at least a little bit on your politics. But when it comes to ethics, some presidents did things that, many Americans would agree, made them terrible people. Some committed crimes. Others took sexist, racist, or homophobic actions. Still others sanctioned unnecessary violence and brought about the deaths of thousands of people.

Democratic or Republican, numerous presidents have done things that Americans shouldn’t feel proud of. Read on to discover some of the American presidents who were actually terrible people.

1. Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

He contributed to the domestic slave trade. | Wikimedia Commons

  • 3rd president of the United States
  • Party: Democratic-Republican
  • His worst offense: Setting the stage for the domestic slave trade

The Huffington Post names Thomas Jefferson as one of the most racist American presidents. “By the time President Jefferson took office in 1801, his ‘all Men are created equal’ was fast becoming a distant memory in the new nation’s racial politics,” the Post explains. Jefferson characterized “the blacks [as] inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.” And his ideas were used by powerful Americans to rationalize slavery after the American Revolution.

Some people praise Jefferson for pushing Congress to pass the Slave Trade Act of 1807. It’s true that the law “closed the door on the nation’s legal participation in the international slave trade.” But the Huffington Post adds that the measure “flung open the door on the domestic slave trade.”

Next: This president enacted a racist doctrine that devastated Latin American communities.

2. James Monroe

James Monroe

He tried to make it sound like we were doing them a favor. | Wikimedia Commons

  • 5th president of the United States
  • Party: Democratic-Republican
  • His worst offense: Putting forth the racist Monroe Doctrine

The Huffington Post adds James Monroe to the list of the most racist American presidents. The reason why? His namesake Monroe Doctrine. The statement declared that “The American continents … are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.” That doesn’t sound so bad. But as the Post reports, it became the justification for U.S. intervention into Latin American states. It also led to the toppling of governments that were unfriendly to U.S. interests.

As the Post puts it, the “Monroe Doctrine was as racist and devastating to Latin American communities abroad as the doctrine of Manifest Destiny was to indigenous communities at home.” Additionally, Monroe supported the formation of the American Colonization Society. He even seized a strip of West African land to colonize.

Next: This president waged war on Native American tribes.

3. Andrew Jackson

President Andrew Jackson

He slaughtered thousands of Native Americans. | Wikimedia Commons

  • 7th president of the United States
  • Party: Democratic
  • His biggest offense: Ordering troops to kill thousands of Native Americans and force them out of their homes

Alternet nominates Andrew Jackson as one of the most evil American presidents due to his actions against Native Americans. “Andrew Jackson never met an Indian he liked or felt obliged to respect,” the publication explains. Historians report that Jackson “violated nearly every standard of justice” when he waged war on the Creek and Cherokee tribes to take their land. His troops killed huge numbers of Native Americans, including women and children.

“Long before ethnic cleansing became a term to describe the terrible war crime, Jackson perfected the practice,” Alternet reports. As president, he signed the Indian Removal Act. This law forced 46,000 Native Americans out of their homes and onto reservations in the western territories. Thousands died. And the white aristocracy gained control of millions of acres of Native American land.

Next: This president is responsible for the deaths of thousands of Mexicans.

4. James Polk

James K. Polk

Polk’s decisions killed 25,000 Mexicans. | Wikimedia Commons

  • 11th president of the United States
  • Party: Democratic
  • His worst offense: Taking actions that killed 25,000 Mexicans

Alternet doesn’t characterize James Polk as one of the most evil American presidents. But the publication does name him a runner-up. As the publication explains, Polk believed fervently in manifest destiny. (That was the idea that the United States was fated to expand across the North American continent and acquire more land.) Polk set a goal of securing the Oregon territory and acquiring the territories of California and New Mexico from Mexico.

Unfortunately, he resorted to violence to achieve those goals. Alternet reports that Polk’s actions resulted “in the deaths of 25,000 Mexicans and the theft of most of southwest North America.” The United States won the two-year Mexican-American War. After the war, Mexico relinquished its claims to Texas. And, in exchange for $15 million, Mexico gave up the land that makes up California, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. But the war reignited a debate over the extension of slavery to new American territories. That debate eventually ignited the Civil War.

Next: This president set the stage for the Civil War.

5. James Buchanan

James Buchanan

His presidency led to the Civil War. | Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

  • 15th president of the United States
  • Party: Democratic
  • His worst offense: Paving the way for the Civil War

James Buchanan also makes Alternet’s list of the most evil presidents. He chose to sit idly by as tensions between the north and south escalated and the country slid toward civil war. The National Constitution Center reports that historians criticize Buchanan’s “apparent indifference to the onset of the Civil War.” In his inaugural address, Buchanan called slavery “happily, a matter of but little practical importance.”

Buchanan supported the theory that states and territories could decide whether they would allow slavery. He interfered in a Supreme Court that resulted in the Dred Scott decision. The ruling determined that African-Americans couldn’t be American citizens. It also stated that the federal government had no power to regulate slavery in new federal territories. As Alternet explains, Buchanan “colluded with the Supreme Court to eliminate territorial barriers to slavery, opened the door to the expansion of the ‘peculiar institution’ [of slavery], and ultimately set the stage for the Civil War.”

Next: This president undermined the Reconstruction of the south. 

6. Andrew Johnson

Impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson

He barely squeaked by without an impeachment. | Library of Congress / Handout/Getty Images

  • 17th president of the United States
  • Party: Democratic
  • His worst offense: Taking racist actions to undermine the Reconstruction

Abraham Lincoln would have been a tough act for anybody to follow. But Andrew Johnson fared particularly poorly. He seems to have done everything he could to undermine the Reconstruction of the South. (Or at least the vision that Lincoln had for it.) Johnson supported the end of slavery. But he was still a white supremacist. He wrote in 1866, “This is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am President, it shall be a government for white men.”

Alternet reports that in order to minimize the influence of newly freed slaves — and to prevent the redistribution of land to them — Johnson pardoned “all but the most egregious Confederates.” They quickly rose to power in government. There, they began passing “Black Codes” that made African-Americans second-class citizens. Johnson vetoed a civil rights bill that Congress passed. He claimed that the bill unfairly favored people of color. Congress responded by overturning his veto. It also created the 14th Amendment to give African-Americans equal protection.

Next: This president had the blood of thousands of people in the Philippines on his hands.

7. William McKinley

Portrait of American President, William McKinley

He authorized a brutal war in the Philippines. | Photos.com/Getty Images

  • 25th president of the United States
  • Party: Republican
  • His worst offense: Authorizing a brutal war in the Philippines

Most people know little about William McKinley. But Alternet argues that McKinley should go down in history as one of the most evil American presidents. The publication reports that he had the blood of hundreds of thousands of Filipino people on his hands. At the conclusion of the Spanish-American War in 1898, McKinley decided to annex the Philippines. But the Filipino people expected to become independent. (They’d fought with Spain for their independence prior to the war.)

However, McKinley thought the people “unfit for self-government.” He wanted to “uplift and civilize and Christianize them.” So he authorized a brutal war against the Filipino “insurrection.” Tens of thousands of people died in direct combat. And hundreds of thousands more died from diseases contracted in the concentration camps where the U.S. held Filipino prisoners.

Next: This president supported the Ku Klux Klan.

8. Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson

He was a blatant racist. | Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

  • 28th president of the United States
  • Party: Democratic
  • His worst offense: Undermining racial equality at every turn

According to The Huffington Post, Woodrow Wilson also numbers among the most racist American presidents. The Atlantic reports that “The Virginia native was racist, a trait largely overshadowed by his works as Princeton’s president, as New Jersey’s governor, and, most notably, as the 28th president of the United States.” As president, he oversaw segregation in federal offices. Wilson once even threw civil rights leader William Monroe Trotter out of the Oval Office.

The Post notes that Wilson backed what he characterized as the “great Ku Klux Klan.” He also championed the Klan’s violent disenfranchisement of southern African-Americans. Wilson refused to appoint Black ambassadors to Haiti or the Dominican Republic. And he began a two-decade U.S. occupation of Haiti. Plus, as the Post explains, “possibly most egregiously, at the Versailles Convention settling World War I in 1919, President Wilson effectively killed Japan’s proposal for a treaty recognizing racial equality, thus sustaining the life of European colonialism.”

Next: This president signed the most racist immigration act in American history.

9. Calvin Coolidge

He had several racist policies. | White House

  • 30th president of the United States
  • Party: Republican
  • His worst offense: Signing the racist Immigration Act of 1924

The Huffington Post names Calvin Coolidge as one of the most racist American presidents. The publication cites Coolidge’s response to the handling of the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927 as one of his worst offenses. Most white communities were quickly saved. But Coolidge flooded black communities to reduce pressure on the levees. Then, The Huffington Post adds, “thousands of displaced Blacks were forced to work for their rations under the gun of the National Guard and area planters, leading to a conflagration of mass beatings, lynchings, and rapes.”

Coolidge also signed what the Post characterizes as “the most racist and ethnocentric immigration act in history, an act championed by Republican eugenicists and Democratic Klansmen.” The Immigration Act of 1924 restricted immigration from southern and eastern Europe. It also restricted immigration of people from Africa. And it banned the immigration of Arabs and Asians. Coolidge infamously stated at the time, “America must be kept American.”

Next: This president sent thousands of Japanese Americans to internment camps. 

10. Franklin D. Roosevelt

United States president Franklin Delano Roosevelt

One of the most beloved presidents also ordered the imprisonment of thousands of innocent Americans. | Central Press/Getty Images

  • 32nd president of the United States
  • Party: Democratic
  • His worst offense: Ordering the relocation of Japanese-Americans to internment camps

Most people remember Franklin D. Roosevelt favorably. After all, he’s the president who entered office during the depths of the Great Depression and implemented the “New Deal.” However, Alternet names him as a runner-up on the list of the most evil American presidents. The reason why? His internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

Roosevelt ordered the forced relocation of more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans to internment camps after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. As Vox reports, “Japanese American internment is almost universally considered one of the most egregious things the United States has done to an entire ethnic group.” It took a Supreme Court ruling to release the detainees, most of whom could read, write, and speak English, and only a fraction of whom had spent much time in Japan.

Next: This president bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

11. Harry S. Truman

American President Harry S Truman

Instead of negotiating, he bombed them. | Fox Photos/Getty Images

  • 33rd president of the United States
  • Party: Democratic
  • His worst offense: Dropping atomic bombs that killed hundreds of thousands in Japan

One of Harry S. Truman’s most infamous actions as president was choosing to drop atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. It’s that action that Alternet reports makes him one of the most evil American presidents. The bombings killed hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians. The bombs also maimed and mutilated thousands more. Truman justified the bombings as necessary to end World War II. He argued that the bombings saved the lives of the American soldiers who would otherwise have needed to invade Japan.

But Alternet characterizes that argument as “disingenuous.” As the publication explains, “Japan was willing to surrender to the United States in July of 1945 with one condition, that the Japanese Emperor Hirohito not be tried as a war criminal.” However, Truman didn’t take that offer and dropped the bombs. Many historians agree that the U.S. should not have bombed Hiroshima or Nagasaki. But Truman didn’t see that and killed thousands of people instead.

Next: This president authorized the overthrow of the Iranian government. 

12. Dwight D. Eisenhower

Dwight D. Eisenhower

They authorized a coup to rid the West of oil threats. | James Anthony Wills/Wikimedia Commons

  • 34th president of the United States
  • Party: Republican
  • His greatest offense: Orchestrating a coup that ultimately paved the way for the rise of Islamic extremism

Alternet names Dwight D. Eisenhower as a runner-up among the most evil American presidents “for authorizing the overthrow of the Iranian government via the CIA, resulting in the coronation of the Shah, countless subsequent political murders, and ultimately the rise of Muslim extremism.” Not familiar with that story? Many Americans aren’t.

As The Guardian reports, the CIA admitted in recently declassified documents that it was behind the 1953 coup against Iran’s democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mosaddeq. The coup was “conceived and approved at the highest levels of government.” Eisenhower’s administration engineered the coup at the request of Britain, which regarded Mossadeq as a threat to the West’s oil interests.

Next: This president lied about the reasons behind the Vietnam War.

13. Lyndon B. Johnson

Lyndon B. Johnson

He blatantly lied to the American people. | Wikimedia Commons

  • 36th president of the United States
  • Party: Democratic
  • His worst offense: Lying to America about the Vietnam War

Alternet lists Lyndon B. Johnson as a runner-up on the list of the most evil American presidents. The publication cited Johnson’s decision to expand the Vietnam War — while lying to the American people about the reasons for the war and the country’s prospects for victory — as the 36th president’s worst offense while in office. As The New York Times reports, Johnson launched the U.S.’s full-scale involvement in the Vietnam War despite widespread skepticism about the Gulf of Tonkin incident.

In that incident, two U.S. destroyers were allegedly attacked by North Vietnamese patrol boats. The stated goal of the war, according to History, was to stop the spread of communism in the region. And Johnson cited the attacks to persuade Congress to authorize military action in Vietnam. However, as The New York Times explains, historians in recent years have concluded that the attacks never happened. As The Guardian notes, Johnson himself supposedly said in private, “I don’t think we can win in Vietnam and I don’t think we can get out.”

Next: This president stalled peace talks in Vietnam.

14. Richard Nixon

Richard Nixon

Besides just being a criminal, he supported the war after saying he would end it. | Keystone/Getty Images

  • 37th president of the United States
  • Party: Republican
  • His worst offense: Stalling Vietnam peace talks and expanding the Vietnam War

Most people know Richard Nixon as the infamous figure at the center of the Watergate scandal. But that’s not why he makes the list. Alternet names Nixon as a runner-up among the most evil American presidents “for further expanding the Vietnam War after promising a secret plan to end it, and illegally spying on American citizens perceived as political enemies.”

As Smithsonian.com reports, Nixon ran on a platform that opposed the Vietnam War. But to win the election, he actually needed the war to continue. So Nixon acted to stall the Vietnam peace talks before he gained office. After he became president, Nixon expanded the war into Laos and Cambodia. That action resulted in the loss of an additional 22,000 American lives. And Nixon finally settled for a peace agreement in 1973 that could have been achieved in 1968.

Next: This president ignored the AIDS epidemic.

15. Ronald Reagan

He didn’t care about the lives of gay citizens. | Hulton Archive/Getty Images

  • 40th president of the United States
  • Party: Republican
  • His worst offense: Refusing to address the AIDS epidemic

Many people in the modern Republican party revere Ronald Reagan. But Alternet argues that his saintly image isn’t justified. In the 1980s, an unidentified disease began to decimate people in the gay community. In 1981, scientists identified it as AIDS. But as Vox notes, the Reagan administration treated the epidemic as a joke. People at first thought that the epidemic was exclusive to the homosexual community. That, unfortunately, explains why Reagan didn’t take it seriously.

As Alternet explains, Reagan criticized the gay rights movement as “asking for recognition and acceptance of an alternative lifestyle which I do not believe society can condone, nor can I.” He ignored the AIDS crisis as it killed thousands of people. He barred his surgeon general from speaking out about ways to avoid contracting the disease. It wasn’t until five years after the disease was identified that Reagan allowed the surgeon general to issue a report.

Next: This president launched a war that killed hundreds of thousands of people.

16. George W. Bush

Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush

His reputation is better out of office, but that doesn’t discount what he did. | Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

  • 43rd president of the United States
  • Party: Republican
  • His worst offense: Launching a war and lying about the case for that war

Your opinion of George W. Bush (and other recent presidents) probably depends on your politics. But Alternet names the younger Bush as a runner-up on its list of the most evil American presidents “for invading Iraq under false pretenses.” Vox reported recently that the best estimates available suggest that more than 250,000 people have died as a result of Bush’s choice to invade Iraq in 2003.

Reports indicate that intelligence officials knew ahead of time that the war would “cause massive instability and societal collapse.” But Bush went ahead anyway. Additionally, Bush made numerous statements about weapons of mass destruction that intelligence agencies knew to be false. Bush also made false statements about Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent links to al-Qaeda. As Vox explains, “Bush really did lie, and people really did die as a result of the war those lies were meant to build a case for.”

Read more: The Most Shocking U.S. Government Conspiracies That Are Actually True

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