New York Times blogger Nate Silver on Wednesday compiled a list of the presidents of the United States, ranked in order of greatness from 1 to 43. Silver compiled his data from four recent surveys of presidential scholars who were asked to rank the commanders in chief, Barack Obama not included.
Granted, there’s no perfect way to quantify the success of a president. It’s kind of like ranking the best colleges in America; at some level it’s all bunk. But given Silver’s demonstrated skill at this sort of thing, and the fun to be had with a definitive list, let’s go with his findings.
Who is the worst president of all time -- the unlucky No. 43? That distinction would belong to James Buchanan, our 15th president, who served in office on the eve of the Civil War.
William Henry Harrison, who died 32 days into his term, is ranked three slots higher than Buchanan. Ouch.
So what did he do to deserve this ranking? Here are a few examples.
- He supported the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision, which determined that slaves were not citizens of the United States regardless of what state (free or slave) they were living in. According to the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, the Court's decision "was influenced by Buchanan, who urged a Northern justice to join the Southern members." This decision furthered the tense divide between the North and South.
- He wanted to annex Cuba and make it a slave territory.
- He ordered an attack on Mormons in Utah, labeling their community “a strange system of terrorism.” The operation failed, and a New York Times account of the debacle said "a more flagrant and utterly useless of the public money can scarcely be conceived. The whole movement seems to have been planned in ignorance..." In part, this "Mormon War" may provoked the Mountain Meadows massacre, in which a group of radicalized Mormons attacked and killed 120 emigrants on their way to Southern California.
- He wrote a memoir, Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of Rebellion, in the third person.
- In effect, the union fell apart under his watch.
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