Have you heard about these forgettable United States presidents?
From our “founding father,” George Washington, who served as the first US president, commanded the Continental Army during the American Revolution, and presided over the drafting of the U.S. Constitution, to the self-taught lawyer, legislator, and vocal opponent of slavery, Abraham Lincoln, and all the way to Franklin D. Roosevelt, who presided over the Great Depression and the Second World War, the impact these men have had on not just America but the wider world cannot be understated.
And while many American Presidents have left their indelible marks on history, some marks dirtier than others (looking at you Richard Milhous Nixon), not all of the 45 men who assumed the highest pivotal level of elected leadership in America have found their faces on stamps and coins or had their essence captured in stone or bronze. Some are barely remembered at all.
We thought we should remind you of why those forgettable United States Presidents’ duties, deals, and deeds somehow never jumped out from the pages of history or had their legacies set in stone.
1. Martin Van Buren
Born in Kinderhook, New York, on December 5, 1782, you would think that Martin Van Buren would be better remembered considering he was the first president to have been born after the American Revolution. Like many future Presidents, Van Buren trained as a lawyer before finding his way into politics after winning a seat in the New York State Senate and then being elected to the United States Senate in 1821.
After serving as the 8th Vice President of the United States to then President Andrew Jackson, who was the one who suggested he run, Van Buren would successfully defeat four opponents by securing 50.8% of the vote. Unfortunately for the new President, just weeks after he took office the financial crisis known as the Panic of 1837 would grip the nation, and the way he handled it was less than impressive.
Van Buren opposed any direct federal government intervention and cut back federal spending to maintain a balanced budget. He blamed the panic on reckless business practices and overexpansion of credit, so, refused to provide emergency relief or increase spending on public infrastructure projects to reduce unemployment.
2. William Henry Harrison
You’d probably be forgiven for not knowing the name William Henry Harrison as he didn’t have much time to make his mark on history. Born in Charles City County, Virginia, on February 9, 1773, and the son of Benjamin Harrison V, who was actually a Founding Father of the United States, Harrison would have a distinguished career in the military before turning his attention to politics in 1798, when he was appointed as Secretary of the Northwest Territory.
Harrison would suffer defeat at the hands of our previous entry, Martin Van Buren, in the 1836 presidential election. However, due to Van Buren’s catastrophic response to the Panic of 1837, Harrison would soundly defeat him in 1840 and claim the presidency for himself. Unfortunately, the celebrations wouldn’t last for long.
When Harrison took the oath of office on a cold and wet Thursday on March 4, 1841, little did he know that his presidency would be the shortest in United States history. Just three weeks after his inauguration on Friday, March 26, Harrison sadly became ill was sent to his doctor. Just nine days after falling ill and exactly one month after taking the US oath of office, William Henry Harrison would be the first President to die in office.
3. John Tyler
When it comes to unpopular presidents, unpopular even with his own cabinet members, they don’t come any bigger than John Tyler. Born on March 29, 1790 in Virginia, Tyler would be exposed to politics from an early age as his father, John Tyler Sr., commonly known as Judge Tyler, served in the Virginia House of Delegates before becoming a state court judge and later Governor of Virginia and a judge on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia at Richmond.
Like father, like son, Tyler Jnr would also study law and eventually purchase his own plantation, known as Woodburn, the same year his father passed away. He would begin his rise to the highest office at the age of just 21 when he was elected to represent Charles City County in the House of Delegates. He would continue to climb the political ladder until fate would hand him the presidency.
After ascending to the presidency following the death of our previous entry, William Henry Harrison became the first VP to succeed to the presidency. As this was a first, people were unsure if the Vice President should take the reigns of power from the deceased President. There was no doubt in Tyler’s mind as he immediately took the presidential oath of office.
Thinking that the President, not Congress, should set policy, made him deeply unpopular. So much so, that after he vetoed a bill establishing a national bank, all but one of his Cabinet members resigned in protest. His own party, the Whigs, wanted nothing to do with him either, so, shortly after his cabinet resigned they expelled him from the party. The House of Representatives also unsuccessfully tried to issue impeachment charges against him.
4. Millard Fillmore
Born in a log cabin on New York’s frontier on January 7, 1800, Millard Fillmore’s meteoric rise from small-town lawyer to a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, then from being the 12th Vice President of the United States to being elected as the nations 13th commander-in-chief after the death of then-president Zachary Taylor, has all the ingredients of being a memorable story. Sadly for Fillmore, like our previous entry John Tyler, he had quite a talent for upsetting everyone.
After assuming the presidency in July 1850, Fillmore became wholly obsessed with passing what became known as the Compromise of 1850. This consisted of five separate bills designed to quell confrontations between slave and free states on the status of territories after the Mexican–American War.
Fillmore’s handling of the situation was widely criticized as he was seen to be treating the conflict as a political rather than a moral question. He also somehow managed to anger both pro- and anti-slavery factions. The decision to support the Compromise of 1850 would see him unite people, but only in their dislike for him as a President and do little to quell the rising tensions that would eventually lead to civil war.
5. James Buchanan
Another future President born in a log cabin, this time in Pennsylvania’s frontier and a few years before Fillmore on April 23, 1791 (making him the last president born in the 18th century), was James Buchanan. While our previous entry Millard Fillmore tried his best to stall the coming Civil War, Buchanan decided the best option was to take no action at all, thus ensuring the war would take place.
Faced with the threat of secession and sympathetic to the South, Buchanan supported the Dred Scott decision, a Supreme Court ruling that the rights and privileges that the Constitution confers upon American citizens could not apply to people of black African descent. This widely criticized ruling was seen as playing a key part in the start of the American Civil War.
When the Southern states announced their decision to withdraw from the Union, Buchanan called their decision illegal, yet did absolutely nothing to stop them. Despite being morally opposed to slavery he claimed his hands were tied as he believed slavery was protected by the U.S. Constitution. By refusing to take a firm stand on either side of the slavery issue, the decision eventually sparked a conflict that would end with the largest number of American military fatalities in history.
6. Rutherford B. Hayes
You would think that someone who gained a reputation for bravery in combat during the Civil War became a lawyer and staunch abolitionist who defended refugee slaves in court proceedings and began the annual White House Easter Egg Roll might be remembered more fondly. Unfortunately, history remembers Rutherford B. Hayes for all the wrong reasons.
After serving in Congress from 1865 to 1867 as a Republican. Hayes left Congress to run for governor of Ohio. After serving nearly three terms as governor, he would have something to do with one of the most contentious presidential elections in American history, barely scraping into office thanks only to a congressional commission’s narrow vote. The election was so bitterly divisive that Hayes had to have his inauguration ceremony held in secret under tight security for fear of an insurrection.
In just his first year of office, Hayes would be faced with the largest labor uprising to date in 1877. Hayes would make unwanted history by becoming the first President to use federal troops to break a strike against a private company. When the troops opened fire on workers and killed dozens of innocent people, his reputation was forever tarnished.
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7. Chester A. Arthur
Although born in Fairfield, Vermont, on October 5, 1829, to a Baptist preacher who had emigrated from northern Ireland, Chester A. Arthur would cut his political teeth in the not-so-squeaky-clean New York political machine. Rather than a godly man like his father, Arthur gained a reputation for cronyism and allegedly using kickbacks from workers to fill the Republican Party coffers while working for Senator Roscoe Conkling’s political organization.
So, when Andrew Garfield won the Republican nomination for president in 1880 and nominated Arthur as his vice president it came as a surprise to many. That surprise was followed by shock when Garfield was shot at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station in Washington, D.C., at 9:30 am on Saturday, July 2, 1881, dying 79 days later.
Arthur himself would shock many people when he assumed the presidency by becoming a reformer in office and cracking down on the very practices he and Conkling were accused of by signing the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, which banned kickbacks in the civil service system. Despite his do-gooder attitude, Chester A. Arthur became one of the few US Presidents to fail to win his party’s nomination for re-election.
8. William McKinley
Born in 1843 in Niles, Ohio, over the course of his life William McKinley would become a war hero who led America out of a recession, won a war and re-election, defined modern election campaigns, and died after he was shot on September 6, 1901 by anarchist Leon Czolgosz. So you might think he would be more fondly remembered by history. Sadly for him, that’s not the case.
Instead, McKinley is seen as a weak President pressured into the war with Spain in 1898, pressured by the rise in anti-Spanish feelings stoked by Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst’s “yellow journalism” and a nationalistic press. Many observers considered his tenure as President to be a managed one, suggesting that McKinley was more of a chief executive handled by political cronies than an assertive and powerful leader.
Despite his 1896 election victory ushering in a period of Republican dominance and his presidency seeing rapid economic growth, his legacy would be overshadowed by his more popular Vice President, Theodore Roosevelt, when he took office following McKinley’s untimely death.
9. Warren G. Harding
When Warren G. Harding was born on November 2, 1865, in Blooming Grove, Ohio, this small-town boy could never have dreamed that one day he would make it to the White House. Despite people assuming he’d be a good President simply because he appeared stately and presidential, and he became one of the most popular sitting U.S. presidents, in reality, the truth was far more scandalous.
When Harding died of a heart attack on August 2, 1923, in San Francisco, the press were quick to eulogize him as a “man of peace,” “an ideal American,” and “the greatest commoner since Lincoln,” however, that adoration would soon disappear as scandal after scandal was uncovered.
One of the biggest events to destroy Harding’s reputation was a bribery scandal involving members of his administration that became known as the Teapot Dome scandal. Before the Watergate scandal came along, Teapot Dome was regarded as the greatest and most sensational scandal in the history of American politics.
His reputation would be further tarnished when he became the subject of a best-selling memoir by Nan Britton, a woman who claimed to be his mistress and the mother of his illegitimate daughter. Although her claims have been called into question, in 2015 a DNA test proved without a shadow of a doubt that Harding was not only a womanizer and adulterer, but he was indeed the father of Britton’s daughter.
10. Herbert Hoover
Born to a Quaker family in West Branch, Iowa on August 10, 1874, (but he grew up in Oregon) Herbert Hoover would gain a positive reputation as “The Great Humanitarian” before during, and after the WWI outbreak, becoming the head of the Commission for Relief in Belgium.
Despite his actions making him extremely popular, he would fail to convince Republicans to choose him as their nomination in the 1920 presidential election. Instead, he was appointed by President Warren G. Harding as Secretary of Commerce that same year. He would eventually win the Republican nomination in the 1928 presidential election and destroy his Democratic opponent Al Smith by securing 58.2% of the vote. However, the taste of victory would soon turn bitter as this once-lauded humanitarian would preside over one of the worst US presidencies.
Although it wasn’t his fault that the stock market crashed in his first year in office, beginning the onset of the Great Depression, his response to the economic crisis did little to help. Despite pursuing a series of economic policies in an attempt to lift the economy, he was deeply opposed to any form of intervention from the federal government, causing millions of Americans to suffer. He even tried to blame Mexicans for the Depression, but it was clear when shantytowns called ‘Hoovervilles’ began appearing all over the country, exactly who people thought was to blame.
These Presidents may have not left their mark on the Oval Office, but did you ever wonder what jobs Presidents did BEFORE they became politicians? Click —>HERE<— to find out.