Worst Figures in American History

If you think Jimmy Carter is the Worst Figure in American History, you really need to read more.

John Hawkins‘ unscientific survey of conservative bloggers on The 25 Worst Figures In American History is revealing.  Aside from Richard Nixon and a couple of traitors and assassins, the list is almost completely made up of Democratic politicians and liberal activists:

23) Saul Alinsky (7)
23) Bill Clinton (7)
23) Hillary Clinton (7)
19) Michael Moore (7)
19) George Soros (8)

19) Alger Hiss (8)
19) Al Sharpton (8)
13) Al Gore (9)
13) Noam Chomsky (9)

13) Richard Nixon (9)
13) Jane Fonda (9)
13) Harry Reid (9)
13) Nancy Pelosi (9)

11) John Wilkes Booth (10)
11) Margaret Sanger (10)
9) Aldrich Ames (11)
9) Timothy McVeigh (11)
7) Ted Kennedy (14)
7) Lyndon Johnson (14)

5) Benedict Arnold (17)
5) Woodrow Wilson (17)
4) The Rosenbergs (19)
3) Franklin Delano Roosevelt (21)
2) Barack Obama (23)
1) Jimmy Carter (25)

As Steve Bainbridge and Jim Geraghty have already noted, this is just bizarre.   Bainbridge rightly observes that the list “reflects the partisan passions of the moment, not anything resembling a serious verdict of history.”  Instead, he prefers traitors, terrorists, and racists as his Worst Americans.  Geraghty says these are merely “the top figures who bug conservative bloggers” and thinks more mobsters and serial killers should have made the list.

I sometimes participate in John’s polls but this one is actually too much work.  It’s pretty easy to come up with a list of Greatest Americans – Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Edison, etc.   But Worst Figures?  That’s pretty hard.

To me, such a list should be reserved for people who had a large impact and who intentionally did evil, not simply those who acted according to the widespread beliefs of the day that are now viewed as repugnant.

Mobsters and serial killers?  Pretty bad folks.  But their impact was pretty limited in the grand scheme of things.

Traitors and terrorists?   The Rosenbergs were pretty villainous although, frankly, they’d probably never have come to mind.  Ditto Tim McVeigh or Aldrich Aimes.  And I find it pretty hard to get too worked up over Benedict Arnold, even though his name is synonymous with treason.  Not only did his plot fail but, as a technical matter, he was in fact a British subject.

Politicians?  The crimes against the American Indians were pretty heinous.  Slavery and Jim Crow, too.   But those weren’t perpetrated by single individuals.  The incarceration of the Japanese during WWII was FDR’s decision alone but it’s hard to put a man who was elected president four times and widely considered one of our greatest presidents onto this list.

Presidential assassins?  These people are especially villainous, taking into their own hands the judgment of hundreds of millions.   So, certainly, John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald make the list.    Then again, the names of Charles Guiteau and Leon Czolgosz, the men who murdered James Garfield and William McKinley, are figures of trivia; indeed, I had to look them up.   And there have been perhaps two dozen unsuccessful attempts and plots against presidents and I can’t imagine, say, Squeaky Fromme making such a list.

UPDATE: Basil expands on a point John Personna makes in the comments:   Hawkins’ list is rank ordered by number of mentions, not intensity.  That 25 of 43 people thought Jimmy Carter was one of the 20 worst Americans — garnering him more mentions than any other single figure — doesn’t mean that any of those people thought Carter was the worst figure on the list.   Fair enough.

Rick Moran and others have pointed out that my recollection of Benedict Arnold’s misdeeds is too kind.   I vaguely remembered that he plotted to turn West Point (then decades away from being a military academy, instead being a key vantage point on the Hudson River) over to the Brits and failed miserably and that he lived a life of quiet ignominy in London after the war.  I’d forgotten that he subsequently led British troops in a slaughter of citizens of his erstwhile home.    And, while he was, like all of the Revolutionaries, a British subject under law, he was born and raised in New England.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. @stackiii says:

    FWIW It’s hard for me to take a lot of things that John Hawkins does seriously.

  2. john personna says:

    Was the methodology actually to have everyone name their 25 worst, and then rank them by incidence (total votes).  That’s absurd.  Any such metric ranks not worst but mental accessibility.  The current President will be highly accessible and therefore achieve high rank.
    I betcha Obama would get high rank on both “best” and “worst” lists by this method.

  3. James Joyner says:

    John:  Yes, that’s how he does all of his lists.  Indeed, it’s how even major media outlets do these lists.  It’s why the current president and First Lady always rank high on them.

    But I agree that, if these people were given a list of, say, 100 figures that have appeared on these lists over the years, they wouldn’t rank Jimmy Carter or Barack Obama as the worst.

  4. just me says:

    Well I am pretty sure neither Carter or Obama would or should make a list of worst Americans, but I also suspect if you had the liberal bloggers make a list of their worsts George W. Bush and Reagan would probably both be in the top 5.  I also figure Nixon would be higher on the list-probably a top 5 also.  So I think it probably is accessibility and partisanship probably does influence the answers.
    I confess Arnold and Booth were the first two names that popped into my head, but I think I would be hard pressed to come up with 25 and then rank them off the top of my head without adding a lot of current not really worst but people I think might be bad for America.

  5. john personna says:

    The problem Just Me, is that while Reagan might have been one of the best, George W. Bush might authentically have been one of the worst.  Nixon is tricky ;-), but while some of his pluses and minuses are well known, it isn’t really well known how much his Fed’s currency manipulations caused “Carter’s” economy.

  6. The list is absurd.

    Though Hawkins doesn’t define it, “worst” to me implies at least some level of evil.

    Jimmy Carter was incompetent and a horrible President but according to Hawkins’ list he’s “worse” than Tim McVeigh, Alger Hiss, Aldrich Ames, John Wilkes Booth, and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg ?

    Absurd partisan nonsense

  7. Pug says:

    The presence of so many minor contemporary figures on the list reveals the lack of seriousness in the selections.

    Come on.  Michael Moore?  Noam Chomsky?  Al Sharpton and Saul Alinksy?

    This list is more like one of Bernard Goldberg’s books that is nothing more than a “List of People I Don’t Like”.  That was the title, right?

    My personal choice for number one would be Nathan Bedford Forrest, traitor and founder of the KKK terrorist organization.

  8. czekmark says:

    Any such list, worst or best, is so totally subjective to be meaningless but I guess it still is a good space filler.

  9. Pug says:

    Here’s another thing I don’t really understand.  Why the right wing obssession with Jimmy Carter?

    OK, maybe not a great president, but the worst person in American history?  Please.

  10. Carter was too incompetent to be evil

  11. An Interested Party says:

    How shocking that not a single Confederate traitor made this list…

  12. G.A.Phillips says:

    hmm, who started abortion? Um and how about Olbermann? 🙂

    ***George W. Bush might authentically have been one of the worst.***

    lol, come on man, did you mean Cheney…..lol dang, the list is worst figure not best liberal talking point!

  13. G.A.Phillips says:

    Um, er ah, sorry, I see her at number 11……

  14. G.A.Phillips says:

    ***How shocking that not a single Confederate traitor made this list…*** you think….

  15. PD Shaw says:

    For Benedict Arnold, you would also need to consider his service in the British army, where he led the Burning of New London and the Slaughter of Groton Heights.  This would be one of the worst outrages of the war where civilian homes were burned for collective punishment, soldiers murdered that had laid down their arms, and the wounded abused.

  16. JKB says:

    ***How shocking that not a single Confederate traitor made this list…

    Hardly shocking since the leaders of the Confederacy simply took their states out the Union as would be presumed since those states voluntarily joined.  Their dispute was entirely political over an unfortunate system that was entirely legal in the US until the Union outlawed slavery in the states outside of Union control to avoid a negotiated settlement.  If you include them, you’d need to include FDR who, probably with the best intentions, planted the seeds for our current tottering state of affairs in regards to job fused health care, social security and strangling regulation of the free market.

  17. rick moran says:

    No Aaron Burr? He not only killed Hamilton in a duel but tried to set up his own country – while a sitting Vice President.
    Jeffrey Dahmer should be in there somewhere. I would have included John C. Calhoun whose ideas about secession and nullification led directly to the civil war.
    An individual racist who was truly evil? How about Nathan Bedford Forest who is recognized as one of the founders of the KKK.
    Incredibly stupid choices by a bunch of partisan wackos.

  18. PD Shaw says:

    Oh, there were traitors all right.  John B. Floyd, U.S. Secretary of War, ordered cannons from Pittsburgh shipped to the South for availability in the rebellion.

  19. If you note, the prompt was to name the worst figures in American history, not the worst Americans in history.  So shouldn’t people like Hitler and Osama bin Laden be on the list?

  20. Michael Reynolds says:

    I’m afraid the list just demonstrates that conservative bloggers aren’t very bright, very well-educated, or very much in control of their emotions and prejudices.  (I exempt you, of course, James.)
    Justice Roger Taney — he of Dredd Scott.
    Tim McVeigh — mass murderer.
    Jefferson Davis — treasonous leader of the Confederacy that killed more Americans than any war up to that time.
    Nathan Bedford Forrest, CSA general, war criminal and founder of the KKK.
    Benedict Arnold, traitor.
    Andrew Jackson, the president who signed the Indian Removal Act that forced the ethnic cleansing of largely assimilated Cherokees.
    Former assistant Secretary of the Navy and President Theodore Roosevelt, for pushing a war in Cuba and subsequently betraying Cuban freedom fighters, a war in Philippines that was deep in atrocity, selling out Korea to the Japanese Imperialists in violation of our own promises to the Koreans, and almost single-handedly obliterating our claim to be anti-Imperialist.

  21. James Young says:

    I was thinking “Roseanne Barr” and “Rosie O’Donnell.” ‘Guess it’s a different list.

  22. floyd says:

    Hmmm… Micheal Moore  and Jeffrey Dahmer…
     If only they could have gotten together before they were famous…
    Maybe it is only micheal’s films that are in “bad taste”
     and Jeffery would have died early from a diet high in cholesterol, before he did any harm. 

  23. just me says:

    <i>George W. Bush might authentically have been one of the worst.</i>

    See I think history in the end will make Bush to be somewhere in the middle-right now he is too current,

    Honestly, when it comes to considering the worst in US history I think it is hard to really consider anyone who is relatively contemporary.

    I actually think you can make a case for FDR to be on the list-although not so much because he was “worst” personally, but because if you come from the POV that much of the programs he promoted were eventually bad for the country, he actually was pretty bad for the country.

    Which really takes us to-what exactly is meant by worst-is it worst as in evil or evil action or worst as in even if they thought what they were doing was the right thing it ended up not being all that good for the country or the people affected.

    But for the most part this list seems dominated by political or entertainment figures who have media attention a bit of a bully pulpit rather than any real power or in the big picture of history any real influence one way or the other.

  24. john personna says:

    Well for GWB what were his best achievements?  Were there any without a boomerang effect?
    (If he’d had the shrewdness to kick down the Taliban sand castle, call it victory, and go home in the style of Bush Sr. and Iraq, maybe.  But not as the then neocon water carrier.)

  25. wr says:

    Just Me — Yes, FDR certainly did hurt this country. Without him, we wouldn’t have all those pesky old retired people hanging around, because those who weren’t smart enough to get rich would have starved in the gutter. Sure, some people say that giving older folks a retirement with dignity is a good thing, but what is that compared to the crime of not living up to the standards of Ayn Rand?

  26. An Interested Party says:

    So now we have FDR being compared to Confederate traitors?  The man who successfully led this country through the most devastating war in history is now being put on the same level with scumbags who commited treason to protect their cherished institution of ownership of other human beings?  Pathetic…funny how even conservative historians list FDR as among the best presidents in American history…

  27. anjin-san says:

    >this is just bizarre

    No, it is what the right in this country really thinks. That thought process (such as it is) is what is bizarre.

  28. Schmitty says:

    Jumping on the bandwagon, we asked these same bloggers some other questions. Their answers are here…..

  29. pbrower2a says:

    … and lest we forget:

    1. David C. Stephenson, Indiana Grand Dragon of the dangerous and powerful KKK. His political career, combined with the clear and unambiguous bigotry of the Klan, could have made him a Hitler-like figure, except that he chose to rape and murder a woman who spurned his advances.

    2. Henry Wirz, commandant of the Andersonville POW camp. I am generally exempting the Confederacy, most of which was gentlemanly. Not he!

    3. William Quantrill. Ruthless guerrilla figure of Bloody Kansas.

    4. Fritz Kuhn, Head of the German-American Bund that wanted America in World War II — on the side of Hitler!

    5. William Calley of the My Lai massacre — quite possibly the man who lost the War in Vietnam for us by killing so many innocent Vietnamese citizens.

    Tied 6 and 7 — Bernie Made-off and Allen StanFRAUD, operators of Dubya-era Ponzi schemes that devoured huge amounts of capital.

    8. Charles Manson. Thoroughly horrible figure who turned the hippie ideal into mass murder.

    9, 10, 11, 12, 13 — Ted Bundy, John Gacy, Dennis “BTK” Rader, Gary Ridgway, H.H. Holmes — horrific serial killers.

    14. Mildred Gillars, a/k/a “Axis Sally”.

    15. Charles Harrelson, assassin of a federal judge. Such indicates what I think of law and order.

    16. Philip Gadahn, 21st-century TRAITOR.

    17 and 18. Soviet spies Robert Hanssen and John Walker.

    …I still have room for Benedict Arnold, John Wilkes Booth, Julius Rosenberg, Aldrich Ames, Timothy McVeigh, and a couple of gangsters of your choice.

    Notice no partisanship. I could have included GOP political figures like Karl Rove and Dick Cheney….

  30. Eric Florack says:

    Woodrow Wilson makes Jimmy Carter, bad as he was, look like a comparative saint. THe only reason Wilson isn’t on top of this list is that so few people these days actually know him.

  31. Eric Florack says:

    Ya know, James, you say:

    ” To me, such a list should be reserved for people who had a large impact and who intentionally did evil, not simply those who acted according to the widespread beliefs of the day that are now viewed as repugnant.”

    But who admits to themselves that they are doing evil? Who doesn’t couch their actions however immoral, in a moralistic crusade, or at least in moral neutrality? I should point out that Stalin, Hitler and a few others of that level of evil were not intentionally DOING evil, but were as you say, they “acted according to the widespread beliefs of the day that are now viewed as repugnant.”

    You see, I look at it that the people whose evil had the widest impact on the world, are invariably the ones who thought they were doing no harm. That’s why people like Chuckles Manson don’t make my list… the numbers of people they affected negatively are insignificant in comparison to what any one of the leftist pols on that lst have done.

    Perhaps that’s why liberals made it to John’s list in such large percentages, for so it is with the liberal mindless set. This demonstrates the danger in the power of government. How much evil has been done with the power of government in the name of doing good?

  32. Jason says:

    I demand Nixon’s name be removed! Surely, we can work in Roger Clemens, or Jesse Jackson. Or I tell you what, let’s make a even trade. Barney Fwank for Nixon.