Sometimes, presidents don’t say what they really mean. They make promises they can’t keep, enact policies that contradict their promises, and lie about their actions or their intentions. In fact, many American presidents have been downright hypocritical about what they did or intended to do while in office.
Below, discover the most hypocritical presidents in American history. And turn to page 20 to find out how Donald Trump compares.
1. Thomas Jefferson
- 3rd president of the United States
What he said: “All men are created equal.”
What he did: Thomas Jefferson owned slaves and never freed them (unlike George Washington). As the Smithsonian reports, “Jefferson owned slaves. He did not believe that all were created equal. He was a racist, incapable of rising above the thought of his time and place, and willing to profit from slave labor.” Jefferson even had a slave as a mistress, and though he “surely” knew slavery was wrong, according to the Smithsonian, he “didn’t have the courage to lead the way to emancipation.”
Next: This president was hypocritical about the role of political parties in the United States.
2. James Madison
- 4th president of the United States
What he said: Political parties would bring “instability, injustice, and confusion.”
What he did: Despite his earlier comments, James Madison changed his views on political parties and became a partisan in the late 1790s. As the Center for Civic Education explains, he organized “Mr. Madison’s Party” in Congress in opposition to the policies of Alexander Hamilton, and it became the basis for the nation’s first organized national political party and laid the foundation for a party system. Madison maintained that his partisan activity didn’t betray his earlier principles, but critics accused him of hypocrisy.
Next: This president took a hypocritical stance on slavery.
3. James Monroe
- 5th president of the United States
What he said: Slavery is “one of the evils still remaining, incident to our Colonial system.”
What he did: James Monroe depended on and benefited from the institution of slavery. Monroe’s Highland reports that he owned as many as 250 slaves and never freed any of them. At the same time, he called for the abolition of slavery. As Highland notes, “The contradiction between Monroe’s personal practice on the one hand, and his personal beliefs and political action on the other, cannot be denied. Yet, his example is instructive, showing him to be a man of his time — aspiring to virtue and justice, yet never fully escaping the dominant views and practices of his historical context.”
Next: This president’s policies on Native Americans proved very hypocritical.
4. Andrew Jackson
- 7th president of the United States
What he said: He wanted to give Native Americans “humane and considerate attention to their rights and their wants, which is consistent with the habits of our Government and the feelings of our people.”
What he did: Andrew Jackson said that he wanted to enact a “just and liberal policy” toward Native Americans, but only 14 months later prompted Congress to pass the Removal Act that forced Native Americans to leave the United States and settle in the Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River. According to The New York Times, historians have condemned Jackson for “his hypocrisy in maintaining that expulsion was a humane solution.”
Next: This president proved himself a hypocrite on the issue of slavery.
5. James Buchanan
- 15th president of the United States
What he said: The Constitution protected Americans’ right to own slaves, even though he felt that the practice was morally objectionable.
What he did: Though James Buchanan aimed to maintain his own neutrality on the issue of slavery, he actually bought and freed two slaves himself. As History reports, his sister owned two slaves, which could make it look like Buchanan supported slavery. He decided to free the two slaves by purchasing them and hypocritically turning them into indentured servants. As History reports, indentured servitude was a “twilight zone between slavery and freedom,” and “the ambiguous transaction sums up [Buchanan’s] enigmatic attitudes toward the institution of slavery.”
Next: This president was hypocritical about the reach of the federal government.
6. Abraham Lincoln
- 16th president of the United States
What he said: “Government should do for people only what they cannot do better by themselves, and no more.”
What he did: Abraham Lincoln expanded the reach of the government. The New Yorker reports, “The Civil War was the original big-government overreach: it came from Washington, D.C.; it involved raising new taxes (in fact, it is the origin of a number of taxes); it confiscated rifles from rebels; it did special favors for minorities (in this case, the special favor of recognizing them as human beings and setting them free from lifelong bondage).” The publication adds that the war also “imposed a bureaucracy on an unwilling population (that is, it imposed the Union Army on the South).”
Next: This president made hypocritical comments about avoiding war.
7. William McKinley
- 25th president of the United States
What he said: “I have been through one war. I have seen the dead piled up, and I do not want to see another.”
What he did: Despite his professed reluctance to intervene in Cuban affairs, William McKinley led the United States into war with Spain. As The New York Times reports, McKinley “guided America not only to liberate Cuba from Spain but also to seize the Philippines and press American interests all the way to China.” The publication adds that “On a scrap of paper, McKinley wrote, ‘While we are conducting war and until its conclusion, we must keep all we get; when the war is over we must keep what we want.'”
Next: This president promoted conservation, but made a hypocritical choice of hobbies.
8. Theodore Roosevelt
- 26th president of the United States
What he said: “It is also vandalism wantonly to destroy or to permit the destruction of what is beautiful in nature, whether it be a cliff, a forest, or a species of mammal or bird.”
What he did: Despite making conservation a priority during his presidency — and leaving behind memorable writings on the topic — Theodore Roosevelt also went on numerous hunting trips. As The New York Times reports, many Americans have struggled to reconcile “Roosevelt’s lifelong prolific shooting of wildlife with his record as America’s foremost conservationist.” Mark Twain, for instance, notably regarded Roosevelt as a hypocrite.
Next: This president made hypocritical statements about peace.
9. Woodrow Wilson
- 28th president of the United States
What he said: America must maintain its neutrality in the Great War in Europe and opt for “peace without victory” because “Victory would mean peace forced upon a loser, a victor’s terms imposed upon the vanquished.”
What he did: The Smithsonian reports that Woodrow Wilson’s “peace without victory” speech “couldn’t save the country from getting sucked into the conflict.” (Neither could his campaign promises to keep the U.S. out of the war.) Politico reports that Wilson “preached peace but crashed recklessly into countries around the world.” The publication contends that Wilson “represents the duplicity that lies at the heart of much American foreign policy,” and that “He is the United States much of the world sees: blathering about freedom while acting to crush it. ”
Next: This president proved a hypocrite on the topic of Prohibition.
10. Warren G. Harding
- 29th president of the United States
What he said: “Let men who are rending the moral fiber of the Republic through easy contempt for the prohibition law, because they think it restricts their personal liberty, remember that they set the example and breed a contempt for law which will ultimately destroy the Republic.”
What he did: Though Waren G. Harding voted in favor of Prohibition as a senator, he didn’t observe the letter of the law himself. Harding kept a fully stocked bar at the White House, according to History. The New York Post reports that “Even though Harding was president during Prohibition — and it was unlawful to transport liquor — he habitually stashed a bottle of whiskey in his golf bag and thought nothing of taking a pop before he teed up.”
Next: This president made a hypocritical statement on government services.
11. Franklin D. Roosevelt
- 32nd president of the United States
What he said: “We are spending altogether too much money for government services which are neither practical nor necessary.”
What he did: Despite proclaiming that “We need to simplify what the Federal Government is giving to the people,” Franklin D. Roosevelt enacted the New Deal. Forbes reports that the New Deal “cost about $50 billion in federal expenditures from 1933 to 1940, excluding functions such as the U.S. Post Office and the State Department.” Furthermore, The New Yorker contends that with Roosevelt’s New Deal, “a ruling class of government administrators and corporate managers was taking over. Bureaucracy was emerging as the form of government everywhere.”
Next: This president made a strangely hypocritical speech about the military.
12. Dwight D. Eisenhower
- 34th president of the United States
What he said: “We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist.”
What he did: Despite his place in the military establishment, Dwight D. Eisenhower used his farewell address to warn Americans about “the immense military establishment” that had joined with “a large arms industry,” according to NPR. The Nation notes that Eisenhower’s comments would have been unusual from any president, but was astonishing “from a five-star general who had amassed and led one of the largest military forces in human history to win World War II.” Hypocritical, even, “given the massive buildup in America’s nuclear arsenal during the Eisenhower presidency, from about 1,000 weapons to about 23,000 by the time he delivered his speech.)”
Next: This president made hypocritical promises about staying out of a major war.
13. Lyndon B. Johnson
- 36th president of the United States
What he said: “We will seek no wider war.”
What he did: Despite uttering the above assurance after the Gulf of Tonkin incident in August 1964 — and making a campaign promise to keep American troops out of the war in Vietnam — Lyndon B. Johnson hypocritically made the Vietnam War the major initiative of his presidency. As the Miller Center reports, “By 1968, the United States had 548,000 troops in Vietnam and had already lost 30,000 Americans there.” Johnson lamented to his wife, “I can’t get out, I can’t finish it with what I have got. So what the hell do I do?” According to the Miller Center, “Johnson never did figure out the answer to that question.”
Next: This president lied about his crimes.
14. Richard Nixon
- 37th president of the United States
What he said: “I am not a crook!”
What he did: Despite uttering this infamous phrase amid charges related to the Watergate break-in and subsequent scandal, Richard Nixon could do little to end questions about his honesty. As The New York Times reports, the Internal Revenue Service ordered that Nixon pay more than $400,000 in back taxes for making improper deductions. And the Watergate investigation uncovered misconduct to the extent that the House Judiciary Committee recommended impeachment. Nixon resigned.
Next: This president proved a hypocrite on the topic of segregation.
15. Jimmy Carter
- 39th president of the United States
What he said: He was “not directly involved in the early struggles to end racial discrimination.”
What he did: The National Review reports that despite the implications of the “disingenuous” comment above, Jimmy Carter “directly and unambiguously supported segregation.” The publication explains, “When Carter returned to Plains, Georgia, to become a peanut farmer after serving in the Navy, he became a member of the Sumter County School Board, which did not implement the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision” and instead continued school segregation. And later, in a bid to win the 1970 governor’s race, Carter “sought the endorsements of avowed segregationists,” the Miller Center reports. Only after becoming governor did he declare the era of segregation over.
Next: This president made a hypocritical statement about taxes.
16. George H.W. Bush
- 41st president of the United States
What he said: “Read my lips: No new taxes.”
What he did: While accepting the Republican nomination, George H.W. Bush promised that he wouldn’t enact new taxes in order to “shore up conservative support and appear tougher heading into the election,” CNN explains. But facing high deficits and the prospect of severe cuts to entitlements once he was in the Oval Office, Bush agreed with a Democratic-controlled Congress on a budget that included new taxes.
Next: This president told a very famous lie about his wrongdoings.
17. Bill Clinton
- 42nd president of the United States
What he said: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”
What he did: As everyone knows, Bill Clinton made the hypocritical statement above even though it was untrue. Time reports that “With those words, President Clinton didn’t just dig himself a hole, he stole a backhoe, dug a really deep hole, drove the backhoe into the hole, wired the backhoe with explosives and blew it up.” After denying his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, he was impeached by the House of Representatives for lying under oath.
Next: This president made hypocritical promises about Iraq.
18. George W. Bush
- 43rd president of the United States
What he said: “Mission accomplished.”
What he did: Standing under a hypocritical banner reading “Mission accomplished,” George W. Bush stood on an aircraft carrier and declared that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended” just six weeks after the invasion. As The Boston Globe reports, “the war dragged on for many years after that and the banner became a symbol of U.S. misjudgments and mistakes in the long and costly conflict.”
Next: This is one of Barack Obama’s most hypocritical statements.
19. Barack Obama
- 44th president of the United States
What he said: “I will close Guantánamo, reject the Military Commissions Act and adhere to the Geneva Conventions.”
What he did: Despite promising to close the Guantánamo Bay prison — and arguing that terrorists use propaganda about the prison to recruit, and that the astronomical costs of housing each captive were draining military resources — Obama never fulfilled this promise. When the president left office, 41 prisoners remained at the facility.
Next: Here’s how Donald Trump measures up to the most hypocritical presidents.
20. Donald Trump
- 45th president of the United States
Donald Trump has been accused of hypocrisy on numerous occasions and on numerous subjects. Want a few examples? He criticized Barack Obama’s use of executive orders and secret service protection, then made more extensive use of both. Trump also decried Obama’s golf habit, then played more than his predecessor. And he has also been called hypocritical on issues as wide-ranging as transparency, free speech, and even the American defense of western values.
However, The Atlantic argues that Donald Trump is “far less hypocritical than past presidents — and that is a bad thing.” The publication explains that hypocrisy “can palliate self-interested and politically divisive government action through mollifying rhetoric and a call to shared values.” The Atlantic contends that Trump doesn’t recognize that for most people, there’s a difference between what you do in private and what you profess in public.
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