Who Was The Worst President Ever?
If Trump hadn't stolen the 2016 election, my pick for worst president in our lifetimes would be Ronald Reagan or Richard Nixon. I go back and forth on that. Today, I'd say Reagan. But in terms of the worst president ever, not counting Trump, I always say John Tyler. I've almost never seen a list of worst presidents that didn't include Tyler in the top 10, although some historians consider James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Warren Harding, Herbert Hoover and Franklin Pierce-- not to mention Trump, of course-- even worse.
Tyler, born in Virginia 1790-- a year before George Washington became president-- Tyler was the 10th president, having been elected vice president on the Whig Party line with William Henry Harrison, who died a month after being inaugurated. He was the first VP to ascend to the presidency and many people considered him an illegitimate president. He was called "His Accidency" by the press. Tyler was from a wealthy slaveholding family and he was an aggressive advocate for slavery. It wasn't just history that judged him an atrocious president. Most of his cabinet quit, the Whigs kicked him out of the party while he was president and his was the first president to have ever had a veto overridden by Congress. He's best known for having sided with the Confederacy when the Civil War broke out and having won a seat in the Confederate Congress just before he died.
This morning The Bulwark pushed an interesting essay on Tyler by Daniel Gullotta, The Last Time We Had an Insurrectionist President, which makes the point that Trump disappointed most Americans by not having receded "into quiet retirement as most of his predecessors did. The activity and boisterousness with which he has continued to champion the Big Lie with which he incited the Jan. 6th insurrection bears comparison to only one other ex-president-- one who also became president under a cloud of uncertainty, ignited calls for impeachment, alienated many both in opposition and within his own party, failed to win re-election, and fell into post-presidential ignominy: the tenth president, John Tyler... When his term ended in 1845, he left office spurned and politically homeless." Tyler was as unliked as Trump, but not anywhere near as stupid, ignorant and psychologically impaired. Trump is a truly evil man. Tyler just supported evil causes.
Out of the public eye, Tyler spent his retirement attempting to repair his reputation, particularly in promoting himself as the progenitor of Texas annexation. But as the country drifted toward civil war over slavery, Tyler joined his fellow Southerners in decrying the rise of abolitionism. At the same time, though, he also expressed concern over Southern radicals who spoke of reopening the slave trade and breaking up the Union. Although initially hopeful for compromise, his pessimism grew with each passing election. Following James Buchanan’s pyrrhic victory over the anti-slavery Republican party in the election of 1856, Tyler remarked in an August 1860 letter to his son Robert that “the Country is undoubtedly in an alarming condition... Let things result as they may, I fear that the great Republic has seen its best days.” The election of Abraham Lincoln, in Tyler’s mind, sealed the nation’s doom. Writing again to Robert in November 1860, Tyler lamented that “all is over and Lincoln elected. S. Carolina will secede.”
Though Tyler was horrified by Lincoln’s victory, he did not immediately join the cause of the secessionists. Yet secessionism did attract his sympathies: “sometimes,” he wrote a few days later in November 1860, “I think it would be better for all peaceably to separate.” Even so, he remained hopeful that the Union could be saved through more negotiations, and he proposed a convention of free and slave states to hash out a compromise. Although he presided over the Virginia Peace Conference, he fought for peace on the South’s terms and opposed all the conference’s resolutions. Despite his hopes, Tyler maintained that the South had “the right of Secession in the Constitution.” Tyler then joined the Virginia Secession Convention, voting in favor of quitting the Union. Before the convention, he raged against the “aggressions” of the Republican party, citing them as just cause for secession. Tyler then went on to link the struggle to create an independent slaveholding confederacy with “the cause of our forefathers in the Revolution of 1776.” In an April 1861 letter to his second wife, Julia Gardiner Tyler, he triumphantly declared, “Virginia has severd her connexions with the Northern hive of abolitionists and takes her stand as a soveriegn and independant State.” Tyler was then unanimously elected to the Provisional Confederate Congress and later the Confederate House of Representatives.
Northern newspapers strategically contrasted Tyler’s disloyalty to the Union with the actions of the other living ex-presidents. The Washington Reporter remarked in 1861 that “while the despicable traitor, John Tyler, is playing a conspicuous part in the councils of the rebels, and strengthening their hands to the upmost of his mediocre abilities, behold the course of the other ex-Presidents of the United States!” Likewise, the Salem Observer observed that “of the five living ex-Presidents, four, viz: Van Buren, Fillmore, Buchannan, and Pierce, are for the Union and the Constitution, and one-- the meanest of the lot-- John Tyler, is a traitor.” In correspondence for the San Francisco Bulletin, a New Yorker pronounced, “Twice during his life thus far has John Tyler of Virginia proved himself an errant traitor. The first time he only betrayed his party... The second time his country it is which he has betrayed.” Tyler’s bust was removed from the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C.
On January 18, 1862, Tyler, age 71, died, mere months before the beginning of his service in the Confederate House of Representatives. Across the South, flags flew at half-staff, and tributes to Tyler filled the Southern press, most celebrating his contributions to the Confederacy and not his presidency. Buried not too far from James Monroe, Tyler’s coffin was draped in the flag of the Confederacy, which the Richmond Examiner described as “the flag of his country.”
By contrast, newspapers in the North celebrated Tyler’s passing. The New York Daily Herald closed its obituary with the remark that his death “will be hailed with satisfaction and his memory be marked in history as a worthy confrere of Arnold, Burr, and other rebels and traitors.” On a more somber note, the Lancaster Examiner noted that “in the history of the United States we trust that he alone will bear the wicked preeminence-- that no one in time to come will dispute his claim to the title of our only Traitor-President.”
Unlike the death of former president Van Buren, Lincoln did not acknowledge the passing of Tyler. When Tyler’s plantation, Sherwood Forest, was sacked by Union soldiers, Tyler’s death mask was purposefully vandalized. Had he lived, President Andrew Johnson’s pardoning of the ex-Confederates would have included Tyler, but he instead died an enemy to the country over which he had once presided.
Whether and how Donald Trump thinks about his legacy is known only to him, but the rise and disgrace of John Tyler, the traitor-president, should serve as a warning about how insurrectionist presidents are remembered-- in Tyler’s case, with disgrace at first, and then hardly at all.
In her piece for Cook today, What Role Will January 6 Play in The 2022 Midterms? Amy Walter asserts that the midterms will be about Biden, not about Trump. The Democrats and Trump, however want to make sure the opposite is true. "The 2022 midterms," she wrote, "will be a referendum on the current president, not the former one. This is something on which Democratic and Republican strategists I've spoken with agree." Insiders talk a lot with other insiders. They're not always wrong. She insists that "For as horrible as the events of January 6 were, the fact that our constitutional guardrails held is a remarkable and impressive accomplishment. The system bent, but it did not break. But it is this very fact that makes it harder for Democrats to argue that these guardrails are faulty and fragile."
Having largely failed with an ambitious agenda, the Democrats have little to run on aside from what they tried to do and, of course how the Republicans blocked them and how dangerous the Republicans-- Trump enablers-- are. Except it's hard to make the case that it's all the fault of the Republicans when the Democratic Big Tent also includes garbage obstructionists like Manchin, Sinema, Gottheimer, Case, Cuellar, Costa, Schrader, etc.