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The Worst Figures In American History

by @ 11:52 am on August 14, 2010. Filed under Blogging, History, Politics

Many political bloggers are talking today about the list of “worst Americans” posted by John Hawkins after surveying a group of mostly conservative bloggers:

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 Jim Geraghty notes at NRO Online, this list is really nothing more than a list of the people that annoy conservative bloggers the most, a fact demonstrated by the people who are on the list, by how they’re ranked, and by who was omitted. Jimmy Carter is “worse” than Benedict Arnold and Tim McVeigh ? Really ? And Michael Moore is on the list but Jeffrey Dahmer isn’t ? As James Joyner notes over at OTB, it’s not easy to come up with an objective definition of “worst Americans” to begin with, and this list in particular reflects a highly subjective view that barely takes history into account.

Obviously, this poll isn’t to be taken all that seriously but it has raised some interesting questions. Matt Lewis cites it as proof that American politics is broken, Mediaite’s Tommy Christopher notes the blatant political bias reflected in the list, and Ed Morrissey notes that this question came up in the political blogosphere before, about five years ago:

Just for disclosure’s sake, John usually invites me to participate in his polls, but I’m usually too busy to put much time into them (sorry, John).  This time, I passed for a couple of other reasons.  First, I had already done this exercise five years ago at Captain’s Quarters, about which more in a moment.

After reading through Ed’s list, which is very interesting to say the least, and following a few links, I realized that I had done the same thing five years ago as well. That list was made when I was still a relatively new blogger, so I’m going to take this opportunity to revise it. Like Stephen Bainbridge, I will list my choices alphabetically rather than by order of “worseness.” And, like Ed, I’m going to so with this definition of what “Worst American” means to me:

For my consideration, I decided that the status of American had to be part of their “crimes”. In other words, simply picking someone like Ted Bundy or Charles Manson would be too easy. Their evil, though real and in most cases worse than what you’ll read on this list, doesn’t have to do with their innate American heritage. I went looking for the people who sinned against America itself, or the ideal of America. Otherwise, we’d just be looking at body counts.

I also tried to avoid picking contemporary political figures, as we do not have sufficient historical perspective to make that kind of determination. (I do have one exception to this.) Don’t expect to see Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi on this list, nor Teddy Kennedy or Bill Clinton.

So, with that in mind, here we go:

1. Benedict Arnold

Not just because he betrayed his country in it’s infancy, although that is certainly contemptible, but also because of what he did after he became a British General.

2. John Wilkes Booth

Of all the Presidential assassins throughout American history, Booth’s motives were the most venal and his impact on history was the greatest. But for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the post-war history of the United States, and the entire Reconstruction Era, would have been much different and, arguably, much better.

3. James Buchanan

What I said in 2005 still applies, “the bachelor President who bungled his way through four years in office and left America on the verge of destruction.”

4. Aaron Burr

In addition to murdering Alexander Hamilton, Burr also engaged in a conspiracy to foment a rebellion against the United States in the territory covered by the Louisiana Purchase.

5. Jefferson Davis

President of the traitorous Confederate State of America, defender of the slavocracy. Some will object to my putting Davis in the list because he was, admittedly, hardly alone in rebelling against the United States, but he was the leader so he deserved to be deserves to be singled out by name, and he stands in for everyone else.

6. Nathan Bedford Forrest

A Lieutenant General in the CSA Army, part of the mass murder of black Union soldiers during the Battle of Fort Pillow, one of the Founders of the Ku Klux Klan

7. Alger Hiss

A traitor to his country and a spy for a regime dedicated to eradicating freedom.

8. J. Edgar Hoover

For the reasons Ed Morrissey listed five years ago:

He didn’t last 47 years as America’s top cop by playing fair. He used his influence and abused his power to accrue files on almost every political player, friend or foe, to use as blackmail to increase his personal power or as leverage for legislative and executive action. He became the closest thing America has ever known to an emperor and managed to die before his empire came crashing down around him. The tragedy of his life can be seen in his contradictions: a gay man who persecuted homosexuals; his undeniable love of country getting consumed by his thirst for power; his desire to enforce the law giving way to his paranoid domestic-espionage activities designed to derail political opponents, such as Martin Luther King and others he deemed dangerous. Hoover did good work as well in creating a first-class law enforcement agency, but his ego forced it to miss the rise of the Italian Mafia and his racism kept it lily-white far past his death.

9. Andrew Jackson

For the Indian Removal Act, the forced re-location of Native Americans that followed, and the horrible precedent it set for future Americans dealings with native tribes

10. Lyndon Baines Johnson

As if lying to the American people about Vietnam weren’t bad enough, he also set in motion the tax and spend philosophy that lives with us to this day.

11. Joseph McCarthy

A man who did more damage to the anti-Communist cause, and the reputations of countless innocent Americans, than any Communist ever did.

12. Timothy McViegh

Because of this.

13. Richard Nixon

Watergate, Cointelpro, the Pentagon Papers case, Daniel Elsberg, wage and price controls, and the largest expansion of federal bureaucracy since his predecessor.

14. Roger Taney

Fifth Chief Justice of the United States and author of the Supreme Court’s decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford

15. Woodrow Wilson

The man who ushered Progressivism through the American political system, involved America in a war in which she had no vital national interests and stake, and took it upon himself to remake the map of Europe in such a way that made a Second World War virtually inevitable.

So, there’s my list. You’ll notice several changes from the 2005 version. Why no Jimmy Carter this time, for example ? Because I consider Carter incompetent, not evil. Anyway, criticize away !

Update: Rick Moran has chimed in with what is clearly the most amusing response to this whole thing — The Top 43 Dumbest Conservative Bloggers.

Update #2: Jazz Shaw is out with his own take on the Hawkins list, the issue of who a “worst American” ought to be, a list of his own, and an evisceration of two of my choices:

Why is anyone selecting Aaron Burr? Doug and Ed are unhappy because he shot Alexander Hamilton. It was a duel! Nobody made Hamilton show up and he had a gun as well. Reports of his “intentionally missing Burr” have been widely disputed. He is also accused of trying to set up some sort of Western Empire and leave the union. He was eventually cleared of those charges by the Supreme Court and many analysts of the period believe it was a plot by his political rivals. The man served his nation for a lifetime, was a Vice President got beaten up for it. Give him a break.


And really, Doug… Andrew Jackson? Yes, he was guilty of horrible things regarding Native Americans. I don’t deny that. But in the context of the era, we should also find some room to remember that people thought and acted differently. We are making villains of many who didn’t do enough to stop slavery, but I don’t see anyone including some of the founders who owned slaves on their lists

I had a feeling picking Jackson would raise some eyebrows, but for me it goes back to the criteria that Ed laid out in his post five years ago, and which I tried to follow in making my picks. I could have substituted John C. Calhoun for Jackson for different reasons, but with Jefferson Davis and Nathan Bedford Forrest on the list, I didn’t want to make it heavy with secessionists. In Jackson’s case, it was the precedent he set that I felt gave him the dishonor and, like Davis, he stands as much as a representative for those who carried out the policy he established as he does for his own actions.

As for Burr, my knowledge of him is based on what I’ve read about the era. Jazz has promised on Twitter to refer me to a biography of Burr, and I’m always will to read so maybe my mind will change someday.

My list is still subjective, of course, but that’s inevitable. I include Woodrow Wilson on there, for example, because I believe he set us down a path that has been largely a disaster for liberty in this country. Others, quite obviously, will disagree.That said, I am much happier with this list than the one I came up with five years ago.

13 Responses to “The Worst Figures In American History”

  1. Here are my twenty, yes, the poll was for the Top Twenty: Bill and Hillary Clinton, Julius and Ethyl Rosenberg, Barry Obama, Aldrich Ames, Aaron Burr, Robert Hanssen, Jane Fonda, Benedict Arnold, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Earl Warren, Franklin Roosevelt, Hugo Black, Robert Byrd, Edward Kennedy, Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Jesse Jackson.

    I think that it is blatantly obvious why I picked the ones that I did, too.

    I am completely glad that Rick picked me for the top dumbest bloggers list.

  2. Michael Reynolds says:

    If LBJ is in there for “tax and spend” shall we include Reagan for “borrow and spend?” (Although I’ll agree with LBJ’s sins of dishonesty on Vietnam. I don’t think it has really penetrated to people’s consciousness that he prolonged a war in which he did not believe, and which he knew was futile. I think it’s almost too stomach-turning for people to absorb.)

    And I think blaming Wilson for WW2 is a bit much.

    That aside, I agree with the rest of your list. And I’m gratified to see that conservatives realize what a villain Forrest was. A war criminal and a domestic terrorist.

    I had not thought of J. Edgar, that was an inspired inclusion. A classic example of a man who began with reasonable motives and ended up being nearly as bad as some of the people he was trying to stop, and worse than many others.

    But I have one name that will no doubt irritate Republicans: Teddy Roosevelt. As Undersecretary of the Navy he did more than anyone else in government to push war with Spain which destroyed our anti-Imperialist credentials when we moved immediately to stab the Cuban freedom fighters in the back and carry out a war of atrocity and mass murder in the Philippines. Then there’s the little matter of betraying the Koreans to the Japanese. Not exactly setting the stage for further Japanese aggression, but giving it an assist. And his generally insufferable racist claptrap of Aryan supremacy.

    But just to provide some gender balance, why not include Carrie Nation and the Temperance movement? She ended up doing more than any other person to entrench organized crime in this country, which corrupted police and courts, and pointed the way to the ongoing, futile and destructive drug war. Carrie Nation helped to create J. Edgar Hoover. So let’s give the girls a slot on the list.

  3. I have had more than enough of Harry Reid. He is the weakest of national “leaders” of my lifetime. You can handle a lot, even if you disagree, if the leader is principled, but Reid twists and turns and flails with every breeze. Get. Him. Out.

  4. Christopher W. Robertson says:

    To have included Jefferson Davis on this list and for the reasons listed shows an incredible lack of understanding of The War Between The States and the reasons behind the secession of 13 states (not including Maryland, which was forcibly prevented from seceding). The South was not in rebellion–it severed ties and declared independence. The Confederacy was not made up of traitors, and for this utterance alone you deserve unspeakable consequences. You have no standing to call millions of Southernors traitors. Lincoln, the dictator, the tyrant, did not even do so. The Southern States seceded, as was their right, due to the failure of the Federal government to enforce Federal laws and the outright nullification by many Northern States who also refused to enforce Federal laws. They left because the contract as embodied in the Constitution had been abrogated by Northern actions and threats of actions. You are in serious need of an education that honestly explores the War Between The States. The North invaded the South, not the other way around. The South sought to leave in peace and asked to only be let alone.

    You also include Nathan Bedford Forrest, and cite reasons, yet, not so curiously, you do not include Union Generals for their actions against the South, most notable, William Tecumseh Sherman, who was responsible for the wholesale destruction–far beyond any previous war fighting and the accepted methods of warfighting–of a significant portion of the Confederacy from Tennessee to the Atlantic. His conduct shamed the entire Union effort, and still stains the Union’s cause to maintain the Union. Forrest may have been responsible for the massacre at Fort Pillow, but that compares to many Union efforts in the South, and Forrest’s efforts were concentrated on legal combatants, not the civilian populace of an entire section of the country. You cite Forrest’s association with the KKK, but the KKK was a reaction to Reconstruction and its many abuses. Had Reconstruction not been so abusive, there might never have been a KKK. I wonder if you hold Senator Robert Byrd and other politicians equally to this standard.

    It is impossible for these men to have been traitors to the United States. They were citizens of another country, the Confederate States of America, a country that technically still exists and has been occupied by an empire since the end of hostilities. Only the military hostilities ended. No treaty ever ended the war, and no treason trials were held to completion (Jefferson Davis’ trial–the only one begun–was ended before completion due to the general amnesty). The Southern States, under point of bayonets, were forcibly re-integrated into an empire.

    You mention the Confederacy as a slaveocracy. The Confederacy lasted four years, unless you accept the theory it is an occupied country even now. Then you must also call the United States a slaveocracy, due to the fact that it endorsed slavery for some 78 years (and had a legacy of slavery going back centuries before its founding). Remember that the Emancipation only freed slaves in those areas then in “rebellion”, and not the United States, esp. Maryland, Tennessee, Missouri and Kentucky. The War was not about slavery, even Lincoln said so. Had the country come up with a way to compensate the slaveowners for their property, there might not have been a war to fight. The Republicans advocated taking property without due process and compensation–a significant threat to the South. And the South was not alone in profiting from slavery; The North profited from it mightily as well.

    Sadly, you are indeed ignorant on many things concerning the War Between The States, but this is understandable, even if it is only a product of a biased-education, and not possibly to simple wilfull ignorance and prejudice.

  5. [...] been commented on, and quite ably, by Ed Morrissey, Steven Bainbridge, Tyler Cowen, Matt Lewis, Doug Mataconis and Jim [...]

  6. Obama can only be on the list if they admit that he is an American.

    As for Doug’s meek attempt, Jefferson Davis, by leading the Confederate States of America, actually exemplified the very Libertarian spirit that Libertarians claim to hold dear. He was principally leading a Confederation of States who collectively voted against federal intervention in what was clearly the province of the individual states. Mr. Davis should, very rightly, be held forth as an exemplar for all Libertarians.

    Nathan Bedford Forrest was a great military leader for the CSA. His tactics are still studied and taught in military academies here and around the world. His leadership of the Klan was no different than any military leader who, upon returning home and finding that there was no civil law in place, raised a local militia for the protection of the citizens. Most who revile the Klan do so based on the limited actions of a few very widely publicized acts that were done by extreme elements. When you research the whole history of the Klan, especially from the perspective of the White citizens of the South, you learn that the Klan, to local citizens of all races, was viewed as the town’s local militia group that would help protect the mostly rural areas where traditional civilian law enforcement was sparse. Later, during Robert Byrd’s time, the Klan became more of a business/social organization, with most of the Democratic Party in the South holding membership in the Klan, as well as their local Democratic Committee.

    Blaming General Forrest for any wrongs committed by Klan members over the years since he founded the group as a local militia, is like blaming General Washington for every war time atrocity that US Soldiers have been accused of doing over the many years since the founding of our Army.

    In summary, the premise of these lists are flawed. Being unpopular with some groups, like Jimmy Carter, or Nixon, ignores that many of our fellow citizens still revere many of these, historic figures. For instance, millions still despise Martin Luther King for all of his race-baiting, and racial extortion of corporate and government officials, while others want even more roads and monuments to bear his name.

    Rather than making these lists, it would be far more healthy for the citizens to explore history and current events by reading multiple sources so that events and participants can be seen from several divergent perspectives. Always seek the truth, regardless of where that pursuit takes you.

  7. Michael Reynolds says:

    There you go, that’s more what I expect from so-called conservatives: unapologetic racism in defense of a traitor like Davis and a war criminal and domestic terrorist like Forrest.

  8. It is just merely a statement of historic fact, Mr. Reynolds. To many Southerner of the time and even of today, Jefferson Davis was the honorable, duly elected president of a legitimate nation, the Confederate States of America. Sure, some will argue until they are blue in the face about it, but many still hold that the Southern states had every right to secede, and that’s what they did. Once you understand that basic fact, then the South was defending against an invading Army from the North, not fomenting “rebellion.” The South was not seeking top conquer the Union, only to force Lincoln to withdraw the federal troops from the Confederacy. Ever wonder why Washington was not immediately attacked by the CSA after secession? There was no motivation on the South’s part to bring down the Northern government at that point.

    As for Nathan Bedford Forrest, had the local militia not been organized by him upon his return, we very well have had a prolonged guerrilla war. Instead, General Forrest organized the Klan specifically to protect their local communities. It was very fortunate that General Forest stepped in when he did. It is indeed unfortunate that an organization that had a rather noble beginning, had the entire group’s reputation sullied by a few reckless and cruel acts.

  9. Michael Reynolds says:


    The fact that some people at the time believed this, that, or the other thing does not automatically excuse their behavior. Many people at the time — in fact, most of the civilized world — believed slavery to be a profound evil. And yes, the Civil War was about slavery. Nullification was about slavery. Secession was about slavery.

    Spare me the inevitable distraction about the north not fighting to end slavery. If you really know anything about the war you know that the war did not begin at Sumter but earlier, in Missouri and Kansas. And you know that the table was set with the American seizure of much of Mexico, which led to the question of additional free or slave states in CA, NV, NM, CO and AZ.

    If you exist in a world where absolutely everybody believes a certain thing — that the earth is flat, let’s say — then you have some basis for excusing that belief: no better belief system had yet presented. But Jeff Davis did not have that excuse. Many, many, many people — including in the South — believed slavery was evil, that the extension of slavery into the new states would compound that evil, that there was no right of secession, that the Union was necessarily indivisible as a practical matter of survival.

    In fact Davis and the CSA promptly abrogated their beliefs in the rights of sections to separate from the whole when they attacked West Virginian secessionists and those in the Tennessee and NC mountains who wanted to remain in the union. Their belief in the right of secession was self-serving bullshit.

    There a vast body of opinion that disagreed with Davis — including as I mentioned — many in the South, most in the North, and everyone else in the western world, so Davis does not have the excuse of having no better position yet imagined. He has the burden of being presented with a clear, stark choice between good and evil, and he chose evil. Which makes him no more morally defensible than any other evil man in history who deliberately ignored logic, morality and common decency for purposes of attaining power and clinging to wealth.

    That you would compound ludicrous rationalization of the war with the excusing of a man who, while a soldier in the supposed Army of the Confederacy ordered the mass murder of surrendered prisoners because of the color of their skin, and then upon demobilization launched a terrorist organization, marks you as either profoundly ignorant but one hopes educable, or as a hardcore racist who will remain impervious to all argument.

  10. [...] Matt Lewis, Jazz Shaw and Rick Moran were none to pleased about the results of this blogger poll. Doug Mataconis summed up the reactions to this poll perfectly: Obviously, this poll isn’t to be taken all that [...]

  11. [...] Doug Mataconis: Obviously, this poll isn’t to be taken all that seriously but it has raised some interesting questions. Matt Lewis cites it as proof that American politics is broken, Mediaite’s Tommy Christopher notes the blatant political bias reflected in the list, and Ed Morrissey notes that this question came up in the political blogosphere before, about five years ago: Just for disclosure’s sake, John usually invites me to participate in his polls, but I’m usually too busy to put much time into them (sorry, John).  This time, I passed for a couple of other reasons.  First, I had already done this exercise five years ago at Captain’s Quarters, about which more in a moment. [...]

  12. Rick Sincere says:

    I would add Wayne B. Wheeler, the architect of Prohibition, whose efforts at social engineering and paternalism did more to undermine and subvert the Constitution than any other unelected political activist.

  13. [...] The Worst Figures In American History – [...]

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