The following article is the first of two parts.
The qualifications for a successful president are illusory, but like U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said, in the case of Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184 (1964), that he wouldn't attempt to define pornography/obscenity but, "I know it when I see it."
The American people know a successful president when they see one.
Mention Ronald Reagan and Americans pronounce him a successful president.
Invoke the name of George H.W. Bush and he is proclaimed to be a failure.
There are many definitions of a successful president; did he free people like Abraham Lincoln; did he make things better like Theodore Roosevelt; or did he preside over a peaceful and prosperous country like Calvin Coolidge?
The definitions of success are many; the definition of failure is stark and clear.
Former president Donald J. Trump recently made allusions about Joe Biden and the five worst presidents in American history. This of course begged the question and although some others like Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama should at least earn some sort of dubious mention, here, in my opinion, are America’s five worst presidents, meaning the men who left this country worse off than when they found it.
It’s no coincidence that Americans endured several of their worst presidents in the years preceding the Civil War. Millard Fillmore served as vice president for the far more popular Mexican-American War Hero, Zachary Taylor. As vice president, Filmore had largely been pushed aside and ignored by Taylor and his cabinet. When Taylor passed after only 16 months in office, Filmore assumed the presidency in the middle of a national crisis.
The question of whether or not to permit the spread of slavery into the territory America acquired following the Mexican American War was pushing America towards a breaking point.
While Fillmore viewed slavery as an evil institution that should be abolished, he believed that, as president his role was to bridge the growing divide between the North and South, not pick a side. As such, he signed the group of bills that would become known as the Compromise of 1850.
At the time, the Compromise was celebrated for averting succession and Civil War. In reality, it merely delayed what would soon be inevitable. Yet it came at a terrible cost.
A provision of the Compromise permitted a severe expansion of the Fugitive Slave Act.
Under the new law, every government official was obligated to return escaped enslaved people to their slavers. Citizens were also legally required to report potential escapees and were financially incentivized to do so. Enforcement of the act bitterly divided the Whig Party, and it eventually collapsed two years later.
Filmore was neither a foolish or corrupt president.
His great failure was being so committed to preserving the peace he willingly turned a blind eye to those who would pay the highest price for that peace.
A president must lead through the courage of his convictions.
Filmore had convictions, but he lacked the courage to lead by them.
President Pierce was another famous general to emerge from the Mexican American War.
Though a lifelong Democrat, he was a pragmatist who supported the Compromise of 1850.
He had once hoped to frame his presidency around issues peripheral to slavery, but the country had other plans. As Americans flocked to those newly acquired territories, the time quickly came for them to be organized into local governments and eventually states.
As a result, the question of slavery emerged once again.
Pierce thought the smart move would be to let the state inhabitants decide whether on not they permitted slavery. However, under the Missouri Compromise, slavery was not to be allowed north of the 36°30′ parallel, so this was, in effect, a repeal of that Act.
This was later realized when, in 1854, the Missouri Compromise was formally repealed and replaced with the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which created both states and let "popular sovereignty" decide the issue of slavery.
The violent and bloody result was "Bleeding Kansas," a fight between slavery proponents and opponents.
In 1861, the anti-Slavery settlers won, and Kansas would be a free state.
The second that defined his presidency came shortly after.
Pro-slavery Southerners wanted to buy Cuba from Spain for decades and admit it to the union as a slave state.
At the direction of Pierce, several prominent Americans crafted the "Ostend Manifesto."
This document argued that America should purchase Cuba and, should they refuse, it was legally justified to seize it by force. When the document became public, it set off an international firestorm that further humiliated the Pierce administration.
After four years of internal strife and international humiliation, Pierce failed to secure his party’s nomination and went into history universally regarded as one of America’s worst presidents.
He was also an alcoholic, but this could be understandable.
While travelling by train from his home state of New Hampshire to his Inaugural, the train had a terrible accident and his young son was killed instantly, right before his and his wife’s eyes.
He served one term and went back to New Hampshire, where he became the town drunk.
Part two of this article will appear tomorrow, Wednesday March 30, 2022.
Craig Shirley is a Ronald Reagan biographer, presidential historian, and four-time best-selling author. His most recent book is ''Mary Ball Washington,''a definitive biography of George Washington's mother. Read Craig Shirley's Reports — More Here.
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