The United States of America has had forty-four presidents over its two hundred twenty-four year history. Some have been great—George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt come to mind—while others have been very forgettable, such as Millard Fillmore, William Harrison, and Gerald Ford. Despite having some presidential duds, America has been blessed the good fortune of never having a truly bad president. This does not mean, however, that American presidents have never made bad decisions. This is a listing of some of the worst policy decisions in the history of the American executive branch, in order from least egregious to most.
First, a quick word on two subjects you will not find listed here. Two of the biggest presidential scandals in history centered on Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. Nixon, of course, was tied to the Watergate scandal, in which the Democratic National Committee was broken into by individuals connected to the Nixon administration, a connection which was covered up by the White House. Clinton was involved in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, a scandal which revolved around a sexual affair between Clinton and Lewinsky, a White House intern. While both of these two instances are unfortunate, severely negative occurrences, they do not reflect policy decisions; rather, they were simply poor personal choices by sitting presidents.
Thomas Jefferson was one of the most influential Founding Fathers and a very good president as well. While his presidency is remembered most for the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the country, he made a large policy blunder late in his administration. As Great Britain and France were locked in the Napoleonic Wars, American merchant ships were harassed by both navies; the British even impressed some Americans. In response to this, Jefferson proposed and got Congress to pass the Embargo Act of 1807. This act forbade United States ships from trading with both France and Britain. The law crushed American trade, as France and Britain constituted the two largest trade-partners for the still-young nation. The Embargo Act was meant to protect the American economy, but instead it nearly decimated it.
Habeas corpus, which requires an arrested individual be allowed to be brought in front of a judge to ensure that unlawful detention does not propagate in a nation, is one of the few rights specifically named in the text of the Constitution itself. Article I, Section 9 states that the “Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus” shall not be suspended. During the Civil War, however, President Lincoln formally suspended the writ to get the upper-hand over rioters in border cities and states as a method of keeping the Union together. This suspension allowed authorities to arrest and detain rioters without providing cause and was unquestionably a fierce denial of constitutional liberties, but the extreme circumstances of the Civil War grant Lincoln some historical leeway. Authorities did not abuse the suspension, and it was rescinded after a few months.
The judiciary branch is often considered the “third” branch of the United States government, less important than the executive and legislative branches. This can be seen clearly in the Constitution itself; whereas Article I and Article II describe the formation of Congress and the presidency, respectively, in detail, Article III, which established the judiciary branch, is much more ambiguous than the prior two articles. The Supreme Court’s primary power, judicial review, is not in the Constitution itself, nor is the size of the bench. The seat total has ranged from six, to seven, to nine, to ten, back down to seven, to six, to five, until it was set at nine in 1869.
With this background, in the 1930s the Supreme Court was occupied primarily by Republican-appointees, due to Republican domination of the White House from 1900 to 1932. These Republican-leaning justices proved to be a thorn in the side of Franklin Roosevelt, as they ruled many of Roosevelt’s New Deal policies unconstitutional. Fueled by hubris, Roosevelt attempted to force the Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937 through Congress. This bill, if passed, would have allowed him to appoint one new justice for every sitting justice over the age of seventy. These appointments would have given him a Democrat-controlled Court which then would have signed off on all his New Deal policies. Roosevelt failed to take into predict the constitutional backlash, as most of the public did not see the Court as doing anything wrong. While the bill failed and Roosevelt’s public image suffered somewhat, he maintained a high level of goodwill as he shepherded American out of the Great Depression.
The Vietnam War is one of the most amorphous conflicts in American history, if not world history as a whole. American troops were present from the late 1950s until the evacuation of Saigon in 1975. The whole war was a disaster, pitting a military prepared for pitched battles against a guerilla force which avoided pitched battles whenever possible. American forces never gained much of an advantage in the early stages of the war. By 1968, over half a million soldiers were in Vietnam with thousands dying each month. President Lyndon Johnson did not want to be known as the first president in American history to lose a war, however, so he refused to consider drawing back the conflict. This decision caused the American military to dig its heels into the ground in a conflict which it was woefully unprepared for. Tens of thousands more soldiers lost their lives and America suffered deep and lasting blows to its reputation.
In the aftermath of the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush ordered the American military to invade both Afghanistan and Iraq; Afghanistan to strike at the terrorist organization responsible and Iraq to remove the dictator Saddam Hussein from power. While neither of these objectives themselves was bad, the decision to remain in both nations after the missions were accomplished was. The Iraqi conflict dragged on until 2012 while Afghanistan continues to be a thorn in America’s side until 2014 at least. Just like Vietnam, the continuation of these conflicts has cost America thousands of lives and a great deal of reputation to little tangible benefits. This is ranked worse than Vietnam because Bush had Johnson’s mistakes to learn from, and yet still repeated them.
Just how the Vietnam and Iraq/Afghanistan fiascos have similarities, the worst two acts in American presidential history are similar as well. Determining which of the two is worse could be seen as splitting hairs, but objectively, one can indeed be deemed more heinous than the other.
The bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese navy on December 7th, 1941, ushered the United States into the Second World War. After the attack, distrust and suspicion of Japanese-Americans was rampant, leading to the most controversial presidential decision in the twentieth century. Just two months after the attack, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 which authorized the military to set up “exclusionary” areas from which certain people could be barred from entering. This directly resulted in what has been known as the internment of Japanese-Americans. Nearly every resident of the West Coast who was of Japanese heritage was rounded up and kept in camps in the southwest in order to ensure that no traitors sabotaged the war-effort. This was an absurd, paranoid claim which trampled the rights of over a hundred thousand citizens for no real reason. The government never provided any evidence that even a single saboteur was held in the camps.
In 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act into law. This law gave Jackson the authority to negotiate with Native America tribes for their land in the Southern states. Jackson, however, forced the tribes into the negotiations and gave them little in return. What transpired next has become known to history as the Trail of Tears. Thousands of Cherokees, Creeks, Seminoles, Chickasaws, and Choctaws were forced to move from their ancestral lands in Florida and Georgia to the Indian Territory (modern-day Oklahoma). The removal was uneven and resulted at different times for the different tribes. Thousands of Native Americans died during the journey from their native lands to Oklahoma.
Both of these involved the involuntary movement of a large group of people, an utter disregard for the basic rights of those people. While both of these instances are deplorable, the fact that Japanese internment occurred during a war makes it slightly more palatable. War does not justify the violation of rights, but the fear which war instills in the general populace clouds the mind enough that one can at least understand the thought process behind the internment. The removal of Native Americans from their homes was based on nothing but greed and racism. The only justification was that white Americans wanted the land for their own purposes and saw the Native American tribes there as just an obstacle to that goal.
America has had forty-four presidents, some better than others. Even the best presidents make mistakes. The errors of the past cannot define us, but they cannot be allowed to be brushed away either. These acts must be learned from in order to ensure that the United States continues on a righteous path.