These Are the Most Hated American Presidents (and Trump Might Be Next)
Everybody knows Donald Trump is a controversial president, and he has the approval ratings to prove it. But who were the best and worst presidents in American history? Each of us has our own list, based at least partly on our personal politics. But look beyond approval ratings or partisan politics, and you’ll find a lot of factors influence a president’s legacy and likability long after he leaves the White House.
To figure out which presidents are the most hated — at least by historians — C-SPAN conducted a Presidential Historians Survey. A group of almost 100 historians rated each president on 10 qualities of presidential leadership: public persuasion, crisis leadership, economic management, moral authority, international relations, administrative skills, relations with Congress, vision/setting an agenda, pursued equal justice for all, and performance within the context of the times.
Read on to check out the most hated American presidents — and to discover how Donald Trump really compares.
15. Benjamin Harrison
Benjamin Harrison starts off the list of the most hated American presidents. He landed in 30th place (out of 43 presidents) in C-SPAN’s survey. Historians gave him poor marks for his vision and ability to set an agenda, plus his ability in crisis leadership and economic management.
While reporting on Trump’s current approval ratings, the Washington Post posited, “American history is clear: Presidents who’ve lost the popular vote don’t win popular support.” That certainly proved true with Harrison. Throughout his term from 1889 to 1893, the 23rd U.S. president “battled the perception that his victory was undemocratic and illegitimate.” He was so pompous and cold that even his own party called him a “refrigerator” and a “human iceberg.” Though his party had a majority in Congress, he didn’t manage to enact either of the bills he cared about: giving federal aid to public schools and protecting black voters in the South.
Next: The last president who owned slaves while living in the White House
14. Zachary Taylor
Zachary Taylor came in 31st place. He landed on the list of the most hated American presidents thanks to his particularly low scores for his performance in pursuing equal justice for all and his relations with Congress. As the 12th U.S. president, he served only from March 1849 until his death in July 1850.
The History channel reports Taylor was the last president to keep slaves while living in the White House, which certainly throws up some ethical red flags. Another strange fact about Taylor? A.V. Club reports Taylor refused to be inaugurated on a Sunday. So, in the day-long gap between the end of James K. Polk’s term and the start of Taylor’s, you could argue that the next person in the order of succession — which has since changed — was in power. That means that president pro tempore of the Senate, David Rice Atchison, was president for a day. Not a particularly auspicious start to Taylor’s short term.
Next: A president who tried to stop working Americans from striking during a depression
13. Rutherford B. Hayes
Next on the list of the most hated American presidents? Rutherford B. Hayes, who comes in 32nd place. Historians gave Hayes particularly low marks for his pursuit of equal justice for all. But the 19th president of the United States didn’t do much better on scores for his vision or his relations with Congress, which his controversial path to the White House undermined.
The Washington Post notes Hayes was another president to enter the White House in spite of failing to win the popular vote. He proved “unable to banish the specter of his own highly controversial triumph.” During his term from 1877 to 1881, politicians across the aisle in Congress strongly opposed him. On top of that, he also managed to anger working Americans, who were suffering the effects of a long depression, by breaking up their strikes.
Next: A president who took major risks with wars and tax cuts
12. George W. Bush
Regardless of whether you’re surprised to see George W. Bush on the list of the most hated American presidents, the historians seemed to agree. As the 43rd president of the United States, Bush served from 2001 to 2009 and is already widely criticized by historians; they gave the younger Bush 33rd place. Some of his lowest scores came in categories, such as international relations and economic management.
Bush argued in his memoir that it was too soon for historians to judge him. But The Los Angeles Times countered, positing that “some of the most far-reaching and important initiatives of his presidency didn’t work — or turned out poorly.” Both the Iraq war and Bush’s historic tax cuts have had profound effects on American government and society. And as the Times notes, “He took gambles both in foreign policy and with the economy. Sometimes they paid off. Yet overall, the country paid heavily for the risks he took. History isn’t likely to revise that judgment.”
Next: A president who was America’s first professional politician
11. Martin Van Buren
Next on the list of the most hated American presidents? Martin Van Buren in 34th place. Historians gave Van Buren low scores on qualities, including economic management and his pursuit of equal justice for all. Van Buren served as the eighth president of the United States from 1837 to 1841.
FiveThirtyEight notes that Van Buren was one of the 10 presidents who ran for a second term and lost. But, as the publication points out, at least Van Buren got that second nomination. (A few of the most hated American presidents were refused the nomination.)
According to the Daily Beast, Van Buren was technically the first professional politician and served in numerous governmental positions. Nonetheless, the History channel reports that his administration was crippled by a financial depression and Van Buren’s mismanagement of the resulting panic. It was also hurt by a long war with the Seminole tribe in Florida.
Interestingly enough, The Washington Post reports that Van Buren was the most recent Democratic president to replace another Democrat elected to exactly two terms — a move Hillary Clinton tried unsuccessfully to repeat in the 2016 election.
Next: The first president who was the focus of a “birther” controversy
10. Chester Arthur
Historians gave Chester Arthur 35th place, putting him in the top 10 most hated American presidents. Arthur might not immediately come to mind when you think about the worst presidents. But historians gave him only middling marks across the board. The 21st president of the United States got especially low scores for his skills in public persuasion and his ability to set an agenda during his term from 1881 to 1885.
Arthur is most notorious for the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which he signed into law to drastically reduce Chinese immigration and prevent Chinese immigrants from becoming U.S. citizens. (That’s probably reason enough to land on the historians’ list of the most hated American presidents.)
Interestingly, Vermont Public Radio reports that Arthur was the focus of America’s first “birther” controversy. He claimed to have been born in Vermont. However, Democrats accused the Republican president of having been born in Canada, which would have made him ineligible for the presidency.
Next: The president everybody blames for the Great Depression
9. Herbert Hoover
Herbert Hoover also earned a spot in the top 10 worst presidents, with an overall rank of 36 out of 43. While Hoover earned a good score for his administrative skills, historians put him on the list of the most hated American presidents for other reasons. He got low marks for his economic management, his crisis leadership, and his performance within the context of his time. As the 31st president of the United States, he served from 1929 to 1933, during the Great Depression.
FiveThirtyEight cites Hoover’s presidency in an argument that the first 100 days of a presidency really matter. The Great Depression hit the nation with the 1929 stock crash less than a year into Hoover’s term. Hoover bore much of the blame even though his predecessors’ policies contributed to the crisis, according to the History channel. But Hoover is on the hook for failing to “recognize the severity of the situation or leverage the power of the federal government to squarely address it.”
Next: A president who signed one of the most repugnant pieces of legislation in American history
8. Millard Fillmore
Millard Fillmore is next on the list in 37th place, due to his poor performance at public persuasion and his moral authority (or lack thereof). The 13th president, Fillmore served from 1850 to 1853. The Boston Globe reports that Fillmore has been largely — and “deservedly” — forgotten. But his politics might sound familiar to people paying attention to the Trump administration.
Fillmore dismissed every member of the Cabinet he inherited from Zachary Taylor the day he took office. It took weeks, and in some cases, months, for the new Cabinet members to be approved. He also polarized Congress and showed an attraction to “oddball political movements, conspiracy theories, and ethnic hatred.” Even worse? He was “personally unmoved” by the issue of slavery. Worst of all, he signed into law the Fugitive Slave Act, a so-called compromise between the North and the South that required officials to hunt down escaped slaves and return them to their owners.
Next: A president who died after only 32 days as president
7. William Henry Harrison
Next on the list of the most hated American presidents is William Henry Harrison. Historians awarded Harrison 38th place. He got a few decent marks but also earned poor grades for his crisis leadership, his pursuit of equal justice for all, his international relations policies, and his administrative skills. However, it might seem a little unfair to judge Harrison so harshly; he died just 32 days into his presidency in 1841.
The History channel reports that Harrison was the oldest president until Ronald Reagan. In fact, Harrison’s opponents criticized him during his campaign for being too old to serve as president. It’s traditionally been said that Harrison died of pneumonia, but The New York Times notes the evidence seems to indicate he actually died of enteric fever. The illness was likely caused by the flow of sewage onto public grounds a short distance from the White House, where bacteria could contaminate the water supply.
Next: A president whom Abraham Lincoln dismissed as a “rebel”
6. John Tyler
Many American don’t know much about John Tyler, who served from 1841 to 1845. But historians do, and they hate him enough to put him in 39th place out of 43 presidents. Tyler earned middling scores on some qualities, but the historians downgraded him for his pursuit of equal justice for all. They also gave him poor marks for his relations with Congress.
As the National Constitution Center reports, then-vice president Tyler succeeded William Henry Harrison after Harrison’s untimely death by forcefully asserting that he had become president. Congress accepted the assertion, but some disputed Tyler’s interpretation of the Presidential Succession Clause. It was an inauspicious start to a presidency during which Tyler became estranged from both of the major political parties. WYTV, an ABC affiliate, reports that Tyler later became the only president to be buried under a Confederate flag. Abraham Lincoln reportedly dismissed Tyler as a rebel and refused to lower the flag to half mast in the former president’s memory.
Next: A president who admitted he wasn’t fit for the office
5. Warren G. Harding
Landing in the top five most hated American presidents is Warren G. Harding in 40th place. Historians found lots of reasons to place him in the ranks of the most hated American presidents, but they were least impressed by the moral authority displayed by the 29th president. U.S. News reports that Harding, who served as president from 1921 to 1923, may be most infamous for admitting, “I am not fit for this office and should never have been here.”
Harding was the Republican party’s 11th-hour choice of presidential nominee. As U.S. News explains, “He was so reassuringly vague in his campaign declarations that he was understood to support both the foes and the backers of U.S. entry into the League of Nations, the hottest issue of the day.” Harding played golf and poker and spent time with his mistress, while his appointees exploited the government.
Next: A president who was later insulted by Theodore Roosevelt
4. Franklin Pierce
Next among the most hated American presidents is Franklin Pierce, with a rank of 41 out of 43. Historians gave Pierce a particularly poor grade for his pursuit of justice for all.
He served as the 14th president of the United States from 1853 to 1857. FiveThirtyEight reports that Pierce sought the Democratic nomination for a second term in 1856, but was refused (despite having won “in a near-landslide” four years earlier).
U.S. News reports that Pierce goes down in history as one of the most hated American presidents because he joined the ranks of pre-Civil War compromisers. In fact, he believed “in national expansion even at the cost of adding more slave states,” despite hailing from New Hampshire. His critics called him “doughface,” an insult that apparently alluded to his status as “a Northerner with Southern principles.” Later, Theodore Roosevelt characterized Pierce as a “servile tool of men worse than himself,” one “ever ready to do any work the slavery leaders set him.”
Next: A president who was an open white supremacist, even after succeeding Abraham Lincoln
3. Andrew Johnson
Andrew Johnson fared even worse than Franklin Pierce and lands in 42nd place out of 43 presidents. Johnson earned poor marks from historians across the board, but he got a particularly low score for relations with Congress. The 17th president, Johnson was one of the few who ended up at the White House through succession, sans election. In fact, Johnson became president because he was vice president when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.
The National Constitution Center reports that Johnson is one of the very worst and most hated American presidents in part because “Lincoln was a tough act to follow.” Also at fault was Johnson’s failed role in obstructing Republicans’ Reconstruction plans, which has been “a tough pill for historians to swallow.” Johnson fought with his own Cabinet and party over readmitting secessionist states and over the voting rights of black Americans. And even though he supported the end of slavery, he was still a white supremacist. In fact, 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.”
Next: A president who had tons of experience but still did a terrible job
2. James Buchanan
The very worst American president to have concluded his term, according to historians? James Buchanan, who comes in dead last in C-SPAN’s rankings. Buchanan earned particularly low scores for crisis leadership and for his pursuit of “equal justice for all.”
FiveThirtyEight notes that some of the worst presidents in American history — including Buchanan — came to the office with many years of government experience. Buchanan gained 26 years of government experience before becoming president from 1857 to 1861. However, scholars have concluded that Buchanan “lacked the moral courage” to lead the country as tensions between the north and south escalated.
The 15th president of the United States, Buchanan served just prior to the start of the Civil War. The National Constitution Center reports that Buchanan tops the list of the most hated American presidents — at least among historians — because of his “apparent indifference to the onset of the Civil War.” In his inaugural address, Buchanan called slavery “happily, a matter of but little practical importance.” His presidency just went downhill from there.
Next: How Donald Trump stacks up against the most hated American presidents
1. Donald Trump
It’s far too early into Donald Trump’s presidency for historians to officially name him one of the most hated American presidents. But things aren’t looking good so far. In fact, while historians can’t yet weigh in on whether Trump will go down in history as the most hated American president, pollsters can give him the title. The Hill reports that Trump’s approval rating in 2017’s second quarter was “the lowest of any president’s approval rating since Gallup began tracking the number in 1945.” FiveThirtyEight keeps a running tally, and things don’t look good for Trump.
The Washington Post notes even though Trump might not have a lot in common with the four previous presidents who lost the popular vote, he does share the insecurities that stem from “knowing that most Americans wanted someone else to run the country.”
Experts suspect with some critical distance, future historians won’t be kind to Trump about the troubled start of his administration. It also seems likely historians will draw parallels between at least some of Trump’s actions and the failures of past administrations. Their analysis will likely establish, once again, that history might not repeat itself, but it often rhymes.