Culture

The Six Most Evil Presidents in U.S. History

If evil is as evil does, then these guys wreaked some serious havoc.

Photo Credit: National Archives

Evil, like beauty, is sometimes in the eye of the beholder.

It is difficult to distinguish an evil act from an evil person. Few people, for example, would argue that Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot, and Josef Stalin were not evil men. But if killing lots of people is the criteria, Abraham Lincoln was a pretty evil guy, too; he just happened to be on the right side of history. As the saying goes, history is written by the winners and, it seems, the winners get to decide who is evil. For a long time, we Americans have thought of ourselves as a shining beacon of goodness. Ronald Reagan stoked that mood with his “Morning in America” administration. Meanwhile, those bad guys over there in the Soviet "Evil Empire" were wreaking their havoc. Only, the rest of the world does not quite see it that way. Distrust of America is growing and we are seen as one of the biggest perpetrators of evil and bloodshed, the“Great Satan” to some. This confuses Americans because that's not what we see when we look at ourselves in the mirror, and through the lens of American exceptionalism.

The point is, objective truths are hard to pin down, and subjective truths are many and contradictory. Adolf Hitler was evil because he killed people out of spite and a bankrupt and hate-filled ideology (although he also probably didn’t see himself as evil when he looked in the mirror.) Lincoln was not evil because he was forced into the position of killing people for the preservation of the country. But many Germans worshipped Hitler, and many in the Confederacy despised Lincoln.

No one sets out to do evil, U.S. Presidents included. Our most murderous, warmongering presidents did not intend to become killers, but they did end up committing acts that are considered evil. Here are six of the most evil Presidents in our history (followed by a healthy list of runner-ups.)

1. Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson, Old Hickory, our seventh president, was beloved by the common people of the United States. He was a populist who railed against the federal banking system, a man who grew up poor and climbed the ladder to ultimate power, a war hero, a romantic who pined for his wife who passed away only days after he won the presidency. He was a slave owner who believed in the morality of owning human chattel (although many of our early presidents owned slaves and felt similarly). What set Jackson apart, and places him high in the “Evil President” ranks was his actions against Native Americans. Simply put, Andrew Jackson never met an Indian he liked or felt obliged to respect. Appointed by President Thomas Jefferson to wage war on the Creek and Cherokee tribes in order to gain their territory, Jackson was a brutal Indian killer whose nickname Sharp Knife was well earned. At his command, his troops killed not only vast numbers of male Native Americans, but also women and children. Millions of acres of land was stolen from the tribes during his campaigns. In 1818 Jackson and his men invaded Spanish Florida and incited the First Seminole War, killing Seminoles and capturing escaped slaves who lived among them. As he illegally swept through Florida, he, “violated nearly every standard of justice,” wrote historian Bertram Wyatt-Brown. Long before ethnic cleansing became a term to describe the terrible war crime, Jackson perfected the practice. Supporting and signing, as President, the Indian Removal Act in 1830, over 46,000 Native Americans were forcibly removed from their homes and lands east of the Mississippi River and marched to reservations in the western territories. In one such forced march, which occurred after Jackson left office, 4000 Cherokees died during the infamous Trail of Tears. Millions of acres of Indian land was seized and handed over to the white slave aristocracy. Old Hickory carried his actions against Native Americans out despite the fact that the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional. "John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it!" cried Jackson.

2. Harry Truman

Famous for the sign on his desk, “The Buck Stops Here”, Harry ”Give ‘Em Hell” Truman never shied away from his decision to drop the A-bomb on Japan. Debate has raged ever since. In1945, Truman ordered the U.S. military to drop atom bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Was his action, which literally incinerated many thousands of civilian men, women, and children, and crippled and mutilated many thousands more, justified in order to end World War Two and save the lives of a million American soldiers, who would have had to invade mainland Japan otherwise? That is the argument in favor of the decision, but that turns out to be disingenuous. 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. The truth was that Japan was virtually helpless by this time, its military in a shambles, its cities bombed, and its people starving. Truman ignored the offer, and in August ordered the bombs dropped. Since the U.S. ultimately granted that condition anyway, the dropping of the bombs was unnecessary, and the horrific death and destruction that resulted was also unnecessary.

3. William McKinley

When most people think of William McKinley,* our 25th President, they are most likely to think of one of those presidents who got assassinated, which he was in 1901, making way for the ascendance of Theodore Roosevelt. But McKinley was also a man with blood on his hands, the blood of hundreds of thousands of Filipino people.  At the conclusion of the Spanish-American War in 1898, in which the United States defeated Spain, McKinley found himself with the question of what to do about the Philippines. The Filipino people had expected to be given their independence, which they had fought with Spain over prior to the war. Instead, McKinley decided, “that we could not leave them to themselves - they were unfit for self-government - and they would soon have anarchy and misrule over there worse than Spain’s was; and…that there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died." Thus, under McKinley’ mandate, the U.S. brutally put down the Filipino insurrection in a war that lasted until 1902. “I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn: the more you kill and burn, the better you will please me,” said one of McKinley’s generals, General Jacob H. Smith. Tens of thousands died in direct combat in the guerrilla war, and hundreds of thousands more from disease transmitted in the concentration camps where Filipino prisoners were herded.

4. Ronald Reagan

Today’s Republican Party may remember The Gipper as a saintly figure, but it is doubtful that many in the gay community share the sentiment. In the 1980s, an unidentified disease began decimating the gay community, and in 1981 it was identified as AIDS. While not specifically a gay disease, it was the homosexual community (as well as intravenous drug users) that was primarily infected with it in the United States at first. Reagan’s attitude towards homosexuals was well known. While campaigning for President in 1980, Reagan referred to gay civil rights: “My criticism is that [the gay movement] isn’t just asking for civil rights; it’s asking for recognition and acceptance of an alternative lifestyle which I do not believe society can condone, nor can I.” His beliefs carried over into his administration, and he virtually ignored the AIDS crisis for the several years as it ravaged and killed thousands of infected people. Even his old Hollywood friend Rock Hudson’s death from the disease did not sway him from his indifference to the suffering. Reagan’s Surgeon General, C. Everett Koop was specifically prevented from speaking out about the ways to minimize contracting AIDS. When he did speak about it, The Great Communicator actually served to inflame the crisis. Despite the Centers for Disease Control issuing a report that casual contact did not pose a threat to contract AIDS, parents in many parts of the country spoke out against allowing children with AIDS (who mostly contracted AIDS through blood transfusions) to attend school. Rather than soothing these fears, Reagan stoked them. “…medicine has not come forth unequivocally and said, This we know for a fact, that it is safe. And until they do, I think we just have to do the best we can with this problem.” It was only after organizations like ACT UP, and celebrities like Elizabeth Taylor, began pressuring Reagan to acknowledge the crisis that he allowed Koop to issue a report in 1986, a full five years after the disease was identified. Even then, his Administration was ultimately at odds with Koop, as the report went way beyond what Reagan wanted, rejecting AIDS testing and urging use of condoms and sex education.

5. Andrew Johnson

Andrew Johnson, 17th President of the United States, was just not a worthy successor to Abraham Lincoln. Maybe anyone succeeding The Great Emancipator would suffer in comparison, but Johnson energetically earned his incompetence with deeds that the African Americans in the former Confederacy could truly consider evil. Considering the fact that Johnson was a fervent racist, and pre-Civil War slave owner, who believed in the inferiority of African Americans, it was no surprise that the Reconstruction of the South, post-Civil War, did not go as Lincoln would have liked. “This is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am President, it shall be a government for white men,” wrote Johnson in a letter to the governor of Missouri. In 1867, in his message to Congress, he said, “…wherever they [black people] have been left to their own devices they have shown a constant tendency to relapse into barbarism.” In order to minimize the influence of newly freed slaves, and to prevent the redistribution of land to them, he pardoned all but the most egregious Confederates, and they quickly began grabbing the seats of government. Soon after, they began passing “Black Codes”, laws that, while granting some rights, effectively made African Americans second-class citizens. Radical Republicans in the Congress passed a civil rights bill, which Johnson promptly vetoed, claiming the bill unfairly favored people of color over whites (the veto was overturned). In response, the Congress created the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, giving African Americans equal protection under the law. Johnson vehemently campaigned against the amendment.

6. James Buchanan

There’s a lot not to like about our 15th President, James Buchanan, not the least of which is that he fiddled while Rome burned, i.e., he allowed the country to slide to the brink of civil war, which it did shortly after his successor, Abraham Lincoln, took office. The issue that the American Civil War revolved around was, of course, slavery. During Buchanan’s administration, the debate in the air was whether slavery would be legal in U.S. territories, or would only be decided once statehood was imminent. Northern interests leaned towards territorial decision, where the decision could be made before significant numbers of slave owners arrived. The South preferred that states make the decision, believing that at that point, slave owners could flood the soon-to-be state and vote it pro-slavery. Buchanan sided with the southern states on the issue, and saw an opportunity to have the courts decide the matter. On the Supreme Court docket was a case involving a slave, Dred Scott. Scott sued for his freedom, based on the claim that he had lived for a period of time with his owner in Illinois and Wisconsin (at the time, part of Minnesota), both free under the Missouri Compromise of 1820 (which had limited slavery primarily to Southern states and had diffused the issue for several years). There were five southern justices on the Court, but they let Buchanan know they were inclined to allow an earlier lower court ruling stand and not make new federal law. However, Buchanan was informed that if northern judge Robert Cooper Grier could be persuaded to side with the Southerners, the Court would agree to rule on the matter. Improperly infringing on judicial territory, Buchanan proceeded to write Grier and request that he side with the Southerners, which Grier agreed to do. The resulting Dred Scott decision declared that slaves were not citizens and could not therefore sue. Secondly, it said that slaves were property, not people, and were therefore protected by the Constitution in all territories and could not be prohibited there. The decision invalidated the Missouri Compromise. The President of the United States, James Buchanan, colluded with the Supreme Court to eliminate territorial barriers to slavery, opened the door to the expansion of the “peculiar institution”, and ultimately set the stage for the Civil War.

Some Evil Runner-ups

George W. Bush: For invading Iraq under false pretenses (“Weapons of Mass Destruction”), resulting in the deaths of thousands of U.S. soldiers, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi citizens.

James Polk: For starting a war with Mexico under the doctrine of “Manifest Destiny” (the belief that the United States was destined to expand and acquire land), resulting in the deaths of 25,000 Mexicans and the theft of most of southwest North America.

Franklin Roosevelt: For the imprisonment of over 100,000 Japanese American citizens for the crime of looking Asian.

Lyndon Johnson: For expansion of the Vietnam War while lying to the American people about both the reasons for the war and the prospects for victory.

Richard Nixon: For further expanding the Vietnam War after promising a secret plan to end it, and illegally spying on American citizens perceived as political enemies.

Dwight Eisenhower: 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.

 

*An earlier version of this article referred to William McKinley as America's heaviest president. That was a mistake, as William Taft held that honor. We sincerely regret the error.
Larry Schwartz is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer with a focus on health, science and American history. 
 
 
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