The worst Americans of all time?

by on August 14, 2010 at 3:34 pm in Games, History | Permalink

Status games, why not?  At least the purpose is upfront and the weather is nice. Here is a list from right-wing bloggers and here is a list from Bainbridge, both in one link with Bainbridge's comments.

It's bizarre that Jimmy Carter comes out as the all-time worst from the right-wing bloggers and I don't have to tell you who is number two.  It's also hard for me to see how Bainbridge ends up with Paris Hilton and Michael Moore in his list of the worst and he seems to acknowledge this oddity toward the end of his post.

The most plausible picks are, I think, any number of political figures behind slavery and its continuation (it's debatable who is truly focal here), Woodrow Wilson, the Rosenbergs, and any number of assassins, domestic terrorists, and serial killers.  

Who am I forgetting?  Are there focal figures who held back public health advances?  Led slaughters against Native Americans?  What else?

Who is the worst Canadian of all time?

Hat tip goes to Andrew Sullivan.

BKarn August 14, 2010 at 3:39 pm

Just when I truly thought that my regard for Sullivan, who I once admired, could not sink lower. It’s really a shame he’s too much of a coward to allow comments any longer.

Luis August 14, 2010 at 3:51 pm

The worse Canadian of all time is Paul Bernardo, followed closely by Bernard Landry.

angus August 14, 2010 at 4:08 pm

people, the worst Canadian of all time, hands down by a country mile is…..Gordon Lightfoot!

Shaun August 14, 2010 at 4:16 pm

Pierre Elliot Trudeau for Canada.

1: He almost bankrupted the country, which in the end might have been a blessing in disguise if only because it forced successive governments to begin the long painful process of achieving fiscal responsibility.

2: He stewarded the 1982 constitution, which introduced massive changes to Canada’s political landscape . It institutionalized a separatist movement in Quebec, it gave the Supreme Court of Canada massive powers it didn’t previously have by way of the Charter, . It also has resulted in jurisdiction being the key component of every major national policy debate since its inception. The great irony was that Trudeau was attempting to centralize power in Ottawa.

3: Politically, he brought out the worst of Canadians’ tendencies to compare ourselves to Americans. He made it OK for the left to frame debates as the “Canadian way versus American” and was often openly hostile towards the US. The left now throw out red herrings on many policy debates, ‘well, we don’t believe the American style…’ or ‘Do you want to be like George Bush’? In addition to institutionalizing separatist political movements in Quebec, he also managed to alienate the west and drive a wedge between those provinces and Ontario.

todd August 14, 2010 at 4:18 pm

FDR #3. Some people just do not like the society they live in. The revisionist history from the far right on FDR’s legacy is much funnier than anything John Stewart or Stephen Colbert come up with.

One gets the impression they are upset that they cannot make Darwin an honorary American so that they could put him atop the list.

Al Capone? Whoever invented/marketed crack (if it was an American)? J. Edgar Hoover?

Dan Klein August 14, 2010 at 4:24 pm

I believe that H.L. Mencken’s #1 would have been Woodrow Wilson. Or FDR.

Andrew August 14, 2010 at 4:40 pm

Would you have to give more weight for earlier historical figures because their errors are propagated longer, or do you give them a statute of limitations on the fact that those errors are propagated by other individuals? Do you hold people responsible for their followers, or do you only or more heavily weight their direct actions?

dearieme August 14, 2010 at 4:41 pm

War is such a coarsening business that I’d be inclined to judge behaviour during wars by different standards than during peace. It follows that launching wars is particularly vile behaviour, as is prolonging them needlessly. All US wars until WWII were American wars of aggression, which must give you a useful first draft of a list. Add Vietnam, Gulf War II and the prolongation of the occupation of Afghanistan as three other cases of vileness. Your most famous terrorist was presumably John Brown, your most obnoxious Janet Reno, your deadliest McVeigh. Once the political criminals are listed, you can turn your attention to the small fry of mobsters, serial killers and such. As for the treatment of the Red Indians, I don’t know enough even to guess which cases to class as aggressive war, which as defensive action, and which as mere terrorism.

The big issue must be Lincoln – as an outsider I might guess that there must surely have been a peaceful way to solve the problem of slavery, if only because other countries managed to solve the problem without such bloodshed, but that’s pretty windy stuff. In addition, I have no idea how much of the blame attaches to Lincoln for the failure to find such a way. He certainly seemed to leap precipitately into war after the Confederation’s stupid provocation at Ft Sumter. But perhaps the fault lay with the Constitution, or perhaps with the lies and hypocrisy with which the US was founded in the first place. I certainly don’t see why, in American logic, the Declaration of Independence shouldn’t apply to the states that seceded. Hey ho.

Bill Harshaw August 14, 2010 at 4:55 pm

In comments at Volokh I nominated Andrew Carnegie (tongue in cheek)for his support of international peace efforts.

Our Founding Fathers weren’t all that great a group, speculators, supporters of genocide, debauchees, adulterers, assassins and instigators of world war (GWashington). How about William Penn’s heirs and the Walking Purchase? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walking_Purchase Truth be told, our history is a coat of many colors, many of them dark in hue.

Evan Harper August 14, 2010 at 5:06 pm

Worst Canadian candidates: Don Cherry, Céline Dion, Gerald Bull, Maurice Duplessis. Conrad Black, of course, if he counts as a Canadian. Various spree killers and terrorists, but that’s kind of a cop-out — too easy.

kamana kapu August 14, 2010 at 5:10 pm

To be a successful slaver requires five essential elements: treachery, deceit, cowardice, violence and murder with violence being defined here as “the cowardly use of force against innocent persons, places or things”. George Washington was a successful slaver his entire life and he could not have done so without the repeated use of violence.

Diana August 14, 2010 at 5:19 pm

what, no robber barons? Or is shooting striking steelworkers some kind of heroic thing to do?

Andrew August 14, 2010 at 5:56 pm

Céline Dion!

But seriously, she’s not so bad. If the American Idol people have two brain cells to rub together she is their next celebrity judge. They should just add her and Gloria Estefan, sit back, and rake in the dough.

Loren Gatch August 14, 2010 at 6:06 pm

burger flipper: I agree, Jackson was one racist stinker.

Biggest Traitor, in terms of the number of deaths caused to American soldiers, has to be Robert E. Lee.

Isaac Crawford August 14, 2010 at 6:16 pm

How about Robert Hanssen or Aldrich Ames? They certainly fit the bill as traitors.

Karl August 14, 2010 at 6:32 pm

It can be argued that some of these are simply reflections of the times, but none the less:

Joe McCarthy
John DeWitt
J. Edgar Hoover
Andrew Johnson
Charles Coughlin
Timothy McVeigh
George Rockwell

Tom Faber August 14, 2010 at 6:39 pm

Sorry, I don’t understand the presence of Woodrow Wilson on these lists. Can someone explain?

Careless August 14, 2010 at 6:46 pm

The link on Wilson’s name will explain, Tom

Rob Spear August 14, 2010 at 7:12 pm

Since we no longer adhere to the idea of an objective morality, what can ‘worst’ possibly mean?

Brett August 14, 2010 at 7:23 pm

How about Jenny McCarthy, convincing large numbers of parents not to vaccinate their children should qualify her as evil. Her success in doing so at this point might be a bit short of a top 20 American super villain list.

Steve Bainbridge August 14, 2010 at 7:57 pm

Tyler:I did acknowledge that they were both a reach. Having said that, I would argue that they–like Byrd and Kennedy–are present on my list not for who they are but for what they symbolize. All four are cultural icons for things that really bug me about our culture:

* Byrd for pork barrel spending
* Kennedy for the arrogant licentiousness of some many of our political elites
* Hilton as one of the earliest examples of how it is now possible in our culture to be famous merely for being famous without having any significant merit or worth
* Moore for the coarsening of our political discourse and the legitimation of propaganda as entertainment

These are all bad things, even if they aren’t all bad people. Since I wanted somebody to symbolize them, these 4 seemed plausible candidates.

zbicyclist August 14, 2010 at 8:18 pm

Aaron Burr should be on the list, shouldn’t he?

nelsonal August 14, 2010 at 8:42 pm

John Marshall, who created the unelected, highest power in the land should be on the list from every anti-federalist’s standpoint.

Bill Stepp August 14, 2010 at 9:02 pm

A couple years ago The Economist wrote that Al Hamilton was the creator of the American state. If so, then he’s the worst American of all time.
That makes Aaron Burr one of my favorites.

KM August 14, 2010 at 9:47 pm

How about Brigham Young? Set himself up as dictator until the long arm of the Federal government tracked him down in the wilderness. Partly responsible for and defiant about the Mountain Meadows Massacre, the worst act of terrorism on US soil pre-9/11.

Tom August 14, 2010 at 11:17 pm

This list is an excellent example of why right wingers should not be allowed to run this country.

Michael August 14, 2010 at 11:45 pm

I don’t understand the Wilson animus. True, his vision of a world legal order did not work out all that well. But that was hardly because of his lack of trying. And if you study the process of the Paris peace talks, it’s clear that Wilson did more than could have been hoped to promote self-determination and suppress the more rapine instincts of Britain and France. It’s also naive to think that America could have avoided some sort of involvement in WWI. And as for the economic policies, well, it’s not like anyone really knows all that much about macro consequences in the first place. We might as well blame Hamilton.

Jim August 15, 2010 at 12:01 am

Any American who lives a less than complete life.

Jon August 15, 2010 at 1:17 am

So that slavery thing’s OK with you, Andrew? And, Lincoln hardly started the violence. Google Bleeding Kansas sometime; THAT was violence, started by Southerners. Another handy thing to goog’s Dred Scott, decided by SOUTHERNERS who didn’t understand that Free states wouldn’t take well to being turned to slave states.

It was SOUTHERNERS who started the war, at Fort Sumter, another good thing to Google. In short, there is no there there to calling Lincoln an aggressor, no matter what some Southerners might wishfully say about the war of Northern Agression.

Before that there was a LONG-standing series of compromises that put off the war. Now, maybe the compromises went too far, but they did put off the war decades until the neoconesque morons Pierce and Buchanan served.

Careless August 15, 2010 at 1:35 am

Jon, Lincoln did not start the Civil War to end slavery. He started it because he didn’t want parts of the country to leave the country, and he got a large portion of the country killed to stop that. Lincoln got 600+ thousand Americans killed because he didn’t want to see states leave the union. That’s not a good reason to kill hundreds of thousands of people.

dbg August 15, 2010 at 2:46 am

Andrew Jackson, worst American leader of all time for consigning American Indians to near-genocide.

on the other hand, ol’ hickory ain’t nothin to fuck with. you’ve got to admire the man (despite his bloodthirst, racism, and ignorance) for just being one bad ass mother fucker. there’s something admirable about his shear tenacity and power.

çeviri August 15, 2010 at 5:41 am

larry king

Millian August 15, 2010 at 6:27 am

Evil Lincoln, imagine not allowing slave states to secede and continue slaving. He must be the worst president of all time.

The things I learn about this blog’s readership.

Andrew August 15, 2010 at 7:17 am

“So that slavery thing’s OK with you, Andrew? And, Lincoln hardly started the violence.”

Sigh. I think the reason historians have the exact opposite list of greatness is because the bent towards vigorousness is more dramatic and gives them more to write about.

Somethings things are done best by leaving them undone. See dearieme’s explanation.

A president’s job is to avoid wars. Not avoiding war with your own country seems to be the worst failure of this duty. Yes, war is worse than slavery. And it would have ended eventually without the loss of life and without the loss of the American idea. Lincoln preserved the country, but that’s all he left us was just another country. We lost America.

AlanDownunder August 15, 2010 at 7:47 am

Aren’t you all forgetting Cheney? Not just the six figure body count but the normalization of illegal surveillance and torture.

Is it because the number and proximity of his backers, accessories and useful idiots is too painful to contemplate?

Dave August 15, 2010 at 8:19 am

They acknowledge that Obama is American?

Andrew August 15, 2010 at 8:40 am

FDR…well, I don’t want to completely explode your head, so I’ll pass.

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Allison August 15, 2010 at 10:11 am

I didn’t know about the Mountain Meadows Massacre, so I had to look it up on Wikipedia. It’s a bit odd that (if Wikipedia is correct) that event also occurred on Sept. 11 (1857).

Anyway, my vote is for anyone involved in expanding the scope of the Commerce Clause (FDR, various Supreme Court Justices, etc.). It seems to me that they (thus far) irreversibly expanded the scope of Congress well beyond what our Founders pretty obviously intended and fundamentally changed the nature of government in this country, probably not for the better.

Careless August 15, 2010 at 12:18 pm

And when somebody fires on an American military base, the president is simply supposed to accept such a hostile act – because their job is to avoid war?

Well, that’s what we’re told Israel should do, and that’s what we’re told the US should have done with Iraq…

Ian August 15, 2010 at 3:49 pm

Thomas Midgley Jr. invented CFCs and discovered that adding lead to gasoline stopped engine knock.

TGGP August 15, 2010 at 5:52 pm

Although I think Lincoln was one of our worst presidents, I agree with Bainbridge that John Wilkes Booth was horrible for killing him once hostilities were over. I think Lincoln would have done a much better job in the aftermath.

Six Ounces, could you elaborate on Eugene Debs? I know he was a Socialist, but I haven’t heard of his behavior being that bad.

brad August 16, 2010 at 12:50 am

Sure firing on a military base is an act of war, but there is no eternal law that says that you need to respond to every act of war with a total war. There is such a thing as a minor reprisal, a little tit for tat until a peaceful settlement can be worked out.

The magnitude of 600,000 deaths even today is incomprehensible. At a time when we only had 10% of today’s population it was a disaster of truly historic proportions. If every state west of the Mississippi wanted to leave the Union, I would gladly wish them good luck rather than see 6 million of us die to keep one nation undivided. Even if they committed an admitted act of war, I’d still try and negotiate a peaceful settlement.

prior_approval August 16, 2010 at 3:02 am

‘If every state west of the Mississippi wanted to leave the Union, I would gladly wish them good luck rather than see 6 million of us die to keep one nation undivided.’
A statement that ensures you will never join the 44 Americans who have taken office and sworn to uphold the Constitution. The southern states seceded – it was not a question of them participating in a democratic process to split a single nation into several nations. Secession based in large due to a theory from the 1830s, from Senator John C. Calhoun, challenging President Andrew Jackson, concerning nullification — a state could ‘nullify’ (ignore) Federal laws. This has never appeared in the Constitution, unless one counts the process in which the Constitution can be amended – something the southern states were not interested in. No Supreme Court ruling has ever supported this theory, either. The laws of the United States are paramount, and the executive enforces them. Lawbreakers are entitled to their theories, but should not be surprised when the United States ignores those theories when enforcing its laws.

I still can’t believe this is an argument – and I grew up in Virginia, where one of the state holidays was Lee-Jackson Day (celebrating their birthdays), and where Lee Jackson Memorial Highway was one of the roads we used to go shopping. Virginia seceded, and lost – and even in Virginia, no blamed Lincoln for starting the Civil War – it was firing on Ft. Sumter that started it. That the south considered Lincoln unacceptable is clear – that they refused to accept his election equally clear. But it isn’t your opinion of the suitability of the elected president that justifies violating your oath as a military officer, or to start a war. As an American citizen, your rights and responsibilities involve using the processes outlined in the Constitution to convince the majority of your fellow citizens for redress against grievances, a right which is found in the First Amendments – not attacking American soldiers on American soil because a majority of Americans do not agree with you.

prior_approval August 16, 2010 at 4:49 am

‘George Washington; without this disloyal rebel…’
Ever read the Declaration of Independence? Let me simply note the first line –
‘When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.’

The southern states seceded, in very major part, because the elected government of the United States of America was no longer allowing the expansion of territory within the United States where it would be legal to hold slaves (interestingly, Lincoln even offered the opportunity to pass a Constitutional amendment allowing slavery to be retained in current slave states, but this was rejected, in the end by cannon fire, by those that felt holding slaves was a fundamental human right – for the slaveholders). This is why it is no more possible to find a document like the Declaration of the Independence from those who seceded than it is to find a picture of Lincoln firing on Ft Sumter.

j r August 16, 2010 at 10:24 am

“So we would have had a United States of America and a Confederate States of America – big deal.”

The four million human beings being held in bondage made it a big deal. Everyone who is bloviating on about how the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery needs to spend some time studying American history. Reading each states Articles of Succession is a good start.

Fred Bush August 16, 2010 at 11:50 am

Nathan Bedford Forrest. William Pierce.

L. Ron Hubbard, Joseph Smith.

William Walker.

Henry Kissinger.

J. Edgar Hoover, A. Mitchell Palmer.

D.D. Palmer for worst Canadian.

CBrinton August 16, 2010 at 12:33 pm

“the United States is the only country in history where it took violence to end slavery”

This is a surprisingly widespread, and utterly false, view. To say nothing of Haiti, in Cuba the Ten Years’ War was about as destructive, on a per-capita basis, as the US civil war was in the seceding states.

Joe August 16, 2010 at 1:02 pm

Some questions for the anti-Lincolnistas:

(1) Lincoln offered substantial concessions to the rebels, which were rejected, including an unamendable constitutional right guaranteeing the slave states the right to keep slavery. How is he more to blame than the rebels? Especially given that the South had been demanding the surrender of Fort Sumter since before he was inaugurated?

(2) If your answer is that the South was engaging in a just war for the cause of liberty, and Lincoln was a tyrant for opposing them, please explain how a just war for the cause of liberty can be fought by the side largely protecting slavery.

(3) If you respond that the war was really about liberty and not slavery, that slavery was a tangential issue, please explain the Cornerstone speech, where Confederate VP Stephens – considered a moderate – described slavery as the “immediate cause” of the war, criticized Thomas Jefferson for believing ultimately that the races were equal, and stated that the “corner–stone” of the new confederate government is the “great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.”

While you’re at it, I’d love an explanation of why the confederate constitution, if really about state’s rights, did so little to expand them, but increased federal government power to protect the rights of slaveowners.

And lets not forget about bleeding Kansas, where the pro-slavery partisans were the first to attempt to flood the state with immigrants, the first to resort to violence, and the only ones to resort to election fraud.

Joe August 16, 2010 at 1:26 pm

“Sure the Civil War was about slavery – for the South. For Lincoln it was about keeping the Union together. He didn’t even consider freeing the slaves until it became politically expedient to do so in order to keep Britain and France out of the war. Since we are discussing Lincoln it is his motives that count. And his motives in no way, shape, or form justify the hellishness of the Civil War.”

Not correct. It was about both keeping the union together and preventing the spread of slavery. If he didn’t care about stopping the expansion of slavery into the territories, he could have had his union without the war.

Why did he wait for three years to issue the Emancipation Proclomation? Because he had strategic and legal limitations.

Legally – he’s the President. Where is his legal authority to end slavery? All he had was his authority to fight the war against the South – and slaves could be freed as an impediment to Southern labor forces. But to legitimately use that, he had to wait until the Union could press into the South seriously – remember that for the first few years, the Union couldn’t get out of Virginia and had to deal with invasions of Maryland and Pennsylvania.

Strategically, he would seriously jeopardize the Union’s strategic position if he scared off the border states, especially Kentucky. This became less a concern as the Union cause got stronger, and you’re right, as England and France considered intervening.

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