The five worst Americans in history
An informal survey with interesting results
I am a sucker for lists.
A few weeks ago, sparked by reading yet another claim that Donald Trump is the most “fill in the blank” in American history, I Googled “the worst American in history.” I thought there was a list for everything some where in Googleland, but there was no decent list for this.
So I decided to try to construct a respectable list of “The Five Worst Americans in History.” I surveyed a group of about 30 academic and popular American historians, political scientists and law professors, asking them to nominate five figures from American history. Contemporaries were eligible, but had to earn their place against over 200 years of stiff competition.
I purposefully sketched only loose criteria for being the “worst.” I asked that nominations include only people who held positions of public responsibility or power — elected officials, business magnates, judges, polemicists, generals and so forth. I was not looking for the most evil people such as serial killers and sex criminals.
Lists are fun but also edifying. They reflect both the times in which they are made and the stories, not always the truths, that endure. You can be the judge of what this list suggests.
The list is not mine. It reflects the results of my little highly unscientific survey.
Five worst Americans in history
Richard M. Nixon: Nixon was the clear winner (or loser). His nominations often included remarks such as “obvious” or “of course.” However, several people noted they didn’t include Nixon because he had many redeeming accomplishments (opening relations with China, domestic initiatives that are now considered liberal). Still, Vietnam, Watergate and a legacy of mistrust in government that lingers trumped the positive, as it were.
Nathan Bedford Forrest (tie for second): Forrest, a planter and slave trader, was a lieutenant general in the Confederate Army. He was accused of war crimes after his troops massacred a garrison of black Union troops after they surrendered in April 1864. Forrest made this list, however, because he was an early and famous founder of the Ku Klux Klan and is thought to be its first Grand Wizard.
Joseph McCarthy (tie for second): The word “McCarthyism” is synonymous with political persecution, paranoia and slander because of the man who served as a Republican senator from Wisconsin from 1947 to 1957. Ironically, the legal and political brain behind McCarthy was Roy Cohn, an early mentor to the next man on the list.
Donald J. Trump (tie for second): I tried and failed to steer the survey panel away from contemporary figures. As one historian wrote, “No, it is not too early to tell.” We’ll see.
Edgar Hoover: History has had ample time to judge the first director of the FBI. Hoover held on to that job from 1935 until his death in 1972 using blackmail, secret files and illegal spying. His record of harassing dissenters and abusing power makes him one of the greatest enemies of the Constitution ever, according to our nominators.
Benedict Arnold: The Revolutionary War traitor symbolizes all traitors for Americans.
Father Charles Coughlin: Coughlin, a Catholic priest who had a popular radio show in the 1930s that promoted fascism and anti-Semitism, may have been America’s first mass propagandist. Though he garnered as many mentions as Hoover, he doesn’t qualify for the final five because several people nominated him only in a group with demagogues as one entry: for example, “Charles Coughlin, Jimmy Swaggart, other televangelists” and “As one, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Father Charles Coughlin.”
If groups of similar “worsts” counted, several would have made the top five.
There were many nominations for individuals that undermined Reconstruction or supported white supremacy after the Civil War, including: John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s murderer; Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s nearly impeached successor; Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman, a South Carolina politician who was an infamous white supremacist from the 1880s until his death in 1918; Henry Billings Brown, the Supreme Court justice who wrote the decision in the 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson that legitimized state-sponsored segregation using the doctrine of “separate but equal.”
There were multiple nominations for the enemies of desegregation in the mid-20th century: George Wallace, the Alabama governor and 1968 presidential candidate; Eugene “Bull” Connor, the sheriff of Birmingham, Ala., who fought civil rights with beatings and police dogs (a symbol for “many white Southern sheriffs,” one historian wrote).
Several nominees symbolized atrocities against Native Americans, including Andrew Jackson and Daniel F. Royer (“the agent who spurred on the Wounded Knee massacre” in 1890). Slavery in America doesn’t seem to have iconic anti-heroes; if it did, I think one would have topped the list.
Others receiving multiple nominations include: Aaron Burr, for killing Alexander Hamilton; Dick Cheney, for leading the charge into the second Iraq war; Bernie Madoff, for the greatest Ponzi scheme ever.
The name on the top five that will spark the most argument, of course, is Donald Trump. Whether his spot on the list is deserved, it speaks volumes about his status today, in just the early months of his presidency.