We Americans tend to think only of ourselves. Everything we do and say is monumental. We believe that it matters to everyone else in the world. Of course, sometimes this is true, at least to a certain extent. With the vastness of our military might and the invasive prosperity of our economy (the same broad economy that keeps so many Americans trapped in a chained, endless cycle of poverty), sometimes people all around the world either welcome or resent our influence. But in reference to the question asked in my title, we not only think exclusively of our Presidents, we also have an amazingly short attention span, and a terrifying ignorance of our history. Today plenty of people chant “Trump Trump Trump!” just like “Obama Obama Obama!” and “W W W!” and on and on back throughout time. And no doubt there are cases to be made for any of these. (I personally put Trump in the top four worst, with plenty of time left to advance all the way to number one). But I am talking about ever, anywhere, in the history of the civilized world.
In many ways this is a companion piece to the post from yesterday (12/19/2018, “The Greatest Thing Ever”), where I condemned the very idea of ranking best and worst in anything, considering that times change, circumstances are different, and the social order of the world influences the decisions that some of these occasional psychopaths made. In other words, this list is not in any way definitive. No doubt there will be plenty of other names people might throw out and tell me I’ve forgotten the worst of them all. And of course some suggestions will be valid, my own blind insight shutting them out because of ignorance.
This is also, briefly, a companion piece to my much larger work, one where I published several segments here before withdrawing to write a complete analytical history book, on the editorial history of every US President (see, international audience. We can only think of ourselves!). I will highlight just three US Presidents in this list, where there are far more complete essays elsewhere in my canon. Donald Trump–certainly a worthy contender, is still in office. It would be premature to give him a final judgment at this time.
So where do we start? I do not wish to rank these people in any specific order, because I remain loyal to my suggestion that there is no such thing as number one in historical hindsight. I guess we might as well begin with one of the true villains of recent history:
- Adolph Hitler: Were you alive at the time, living in Germany, and you weren’t Jewish or a Communist, gay, a gypsy, or any other identity deemed impure, you might actually have supported Hitler in his early years. Oh, sure, you might also have been nervous about all that boastful radicalism, and some of the man’s statements seemed to be crazy, but it was the peak of The Great Depression and Germany, especially, was struggling as a result of losing World War I. Hitler promised the Germans he would get the nation out of this hole and return the Reich to greatness. He said he was going to make Germany great again.
But of course Hitler’s goals were far more sinister, and it was not long before he doomed his nation–once again, briefly, the most powerful nation in Europe–to a series of endless, apocalyptic wars. He sought to impose his singular vision upon the world, believing himself to be a savior–a literal messiah, bringing the few survivors that much closer to Heaven. Hitler’s followers were mostly slavish failures, who had seen in the intolerant madman justifications for their own hatred and blame. And so this miserable leader, so tremendously successful in his early years as boss, wound up creating a brief empire that will go down throughout the rest of human history as a scab, one who’s crust cannot help being picked off, time and again, as the world grows increasingly contentious.
2. Gaius Caligula: One of the great monsters of history is Caligula. At the start of his reign, Caligula declared himself a god. He shut down temples, burned synagogues, and persecuted anyone who would not pray to him. Yes, he fucked his sisters, and yes, he raped his incest babies (one of them died as a result). Caligula, famously, also named his favorite horse as his chief political and military counselor (he was fucking the horse too). He even claimed to take advice from the horse, declaring it “The greatest general, next to me, in the history of the world. On his horse’s advice he sacked peasant cities and massacred slaves for fun,
In the end Caligula finally lost a battle, and for this he was brutally (and joyfully) assassinated. His last declared war was waged against the sea, and the god Neptune. It was his plan to conquer all the oceans and therefore have access to ruling the world. He ordered his soldiers to wade into the water and slash at the crashing waves with their swords. Declaring victory at the end of this absurd campaign, Caligula ordered the surviving soldiers (many of them drowned) to gather every sea shell and put them in treasure chests. Caligula then had a military parade, slaves carrying these spoils of war throughout Rome, and then had a debauched celebration crowning him the new king of the sea.
After getting thoroughly routed by German barbarians, the leaders of Rome’s military finally had enough. He was murdered alongside his equine chief general, and the nation breathed a sigh of relief. Of course things could only get worse.
3. Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus: A selfish pervert, Nero followed Claudius (of I, Claudius fame), who had been the immediate successor to Caligula. Nero himself was first instructed by his devious mother, and a corrupt general, with the idea that once he took over they would be the shadow rulers. But Nero, being trained in diplomacy, learned the lesson that being the absolute ruler of an empire as vast and powerful as Rome meant he really didn’t need to compromise with anyone. Learning diplomacy taught him just how useless it was.
As he took charge, Nero learned of the first of the many scandals that would consume the rest of his life. Having fought off the influence of his power-mad mother Agrippina, Nero became more like a father to his only beloved relative, his sister Drusilla. But the sickly girl died, causing Nero to give up all hope, and indulge obsessively in his own cruel whims. Agrippina, meanwhile, had began an affair with Drusilla’s husband (this began while she was dying). Nero’s brother-in-law Lepidus, was a crooked opportunist who had never loved Drusilla. He saw his relationship with Arippina as a direct road to the crown once the two of them figured out how to kill Nero. He believed Nero was weak. Nero had Lepidus executed, publicly drawn and quartered (that is, ripped into four pieces by four horses tied around his arms and legs, and then racing off in different directions). Then his once rival was cremated, followed by a royal funeral procession. Agrippina was forced to carry the urn.
As Nero continued to rule after this, he lost interest in the run of his nation. His step-father, the emperor Claudius, had been poisoned by Agrippina to hasten Nero’s rise to the throne. At the age if 16 he married one of his sisters. Shortly thereafter he set fire to a large portion of Rome in order to clear the way for his dream palace, a vanity project that he believed would cause him to live forever. There is a famous line that ‘Nero fiddled while Rome burned,’ and, while this has never been confirmed, it sure sounds like him.
Nero executed his mother in 59 AD, secretively. He had her sent away on a ship after she jealously threatened to expose Nero’s adulterous affair with his next soon-to-be-wife, as well as her affair with Nero’s current wife. He caused the boat to be shipwrecked. Agrippina survived this, and swam to shore, where she was met by one of Nero’s henchmen, who cut her throat and returned with the solemn news that she had committed suicide. Publicly, through numerous town criers, Nero gave the reason as, “She wanted to marry me. She wanted to be queen again.”
After Agrippina’s death, Nero lost hold on reality entirely. He grew paranoid. He began randomly having people executed, anyone he felt threatened by, which was everyone. He tried people for treason with no cause, often executing the handful of those still loyal to him. Eventually Nero had enough of life. The Roman Senate had had enough of him too, and they declared him a public enemy. They demanded that Nero be captured, then beaten to death in the town square. The citizens (and even the slaves) were given permission to gather up stones in order to hurl them at the villain in the death pit, but before this could happen Nero killed himself. Just prior to his death he said, “What an artist dies in me!”
4. Popes John XII and Stephen VI: There are many popes who belong on this list, but we shall focus on only two of them. Pope John XII rose to the papacy at the age of 18. Utterly unprepared and unqualified for this position, John XII was far more interested in getting drunk and having orgies all throughout the Vatican, than he was in salvation or Jesus Christ. It is likely that he didn’t believe in God at all. Never one to lead sermons, most of the religious duties fell upon his increasingly bitter cardinals, who were forced under the threat of the crime of heresy, to keep the Pope’s secrets. John XII was at that time having affairs with numerous random widows and nuns, his niece, and his father’s long-time girlfriend. He threatened his father with a whipping when he confronted his son.
John XII was accused of turning the Vatican into a whorehouse, which he did, charging visiting bishops to have sex with the widows and nuns on the floor or, for a higher price, against the divine pulpit where Catholic history was made. John XII even jokingly invoked demons during his rare sermons, basically telling the horrified parishioners that they were going to have a battle royal with Satan right there in church. John XII was still in his 20s when he had a stroke, caught in bed with yet another married woman. Despite the suspicions of murder, there was never an investigation of his death. No one seemed to mind. The church moved on.
About 50 years before Pope John XII, the newly elected Pope was a lunatic who went by the title of Pope Stephen VI. One of his very first acts as Pope was to accuse his predecessor, Pope Formosus, of being a false Pope; an Antichrist. Formosus had laughed at and condemned Stephen VI (his birth name is unknown to history). Formosus died nine months before Stephen took his fateful action.
Pope Stephen VI had Formosus’ body dug up, a rotting corpse, and then had it dressed in the sacred robes of office, and propped up on a throne. Stephen then tried the corpse for its crimes. Some hand-picked deacon was selected to speak for the dead, agreeing to the corpse’s guilt. Stephen ranted and shrieked at the dead body before a conclave. The rotten, empty husk was then found guilty, stripped of its robes, had three fingers sliced off (for a blessing), and then dumped in a common grave for foreigners. Stephen VI declared Formosus’ time as Pope void.
Soon after this, a devastating earthquake hit Rome. The papal basilica was destroyed. This was taken by many to be a sign from The Lord that Stephen VI had sinned. In a panic Stephen had the corpse of his predecessor dug up again and tossed into the Tiber river. Loyal followers of Formosus fished what remained of his cadaver out, and secretly gave him a ‘proper Christian burial.’
Riots spread through the streets until Stephen VI was captured, beaten, arrested, then thrown into a dungeon, where he was found, a few days later, strangled.
There are of course many other tyrants throughout history. I have come nowhere close to touching on all of them–the history of England is heavily peppered with cruel brutes, from King John to Richards II and III, throughout several Henrys and many queens who, trying to impose their will, slaughtered even more people than their late husbands, who most had killed themselves. We can return to Rome, go back to ancient )or even modern) Greece and Egypt, or the Mayans, Sumerians, Vikings, Huns, and on and on and on. Human history is filled with terrible people leading the way.
If we look to America, I just want to mention three past presidents. Again, President Trump sure looks like he can join these guys at the end of his reign (this is something I have no doubt he would embrace, too. Best and Worst are merely terms of acknowledgment that this person did something memorable, worthwhile, and that will influence nearly everything in the future still to come). But right now these three idiots top everyone’s list. This includes the two presidents prior to Lincoln, and the one who followed:
- Franklin Pierce: A slimy, indifferent opportunist, who was handsome and charming enough to win the vote, Pierce seemed to care about nothing. When he was visited by moderate Southern Senators on the ever growing controversy of slavery, the nation was offered a slow ending of the practice, ‘by 1875,’ one of the politicians promised. All they asked for was a small government subsidy to help the plantations remain afloat during the transition to paid labor.
Pierce snorted at this plan and went to ask his handlers, wealthy bankers, what they thought. ‘It will lose money,’ was the only reply. So not only did Franklin Pierce reject this plan, he knew toured the South during campaign season, exaggerating his meetings with those moderates, denouncing them as abolitionists, and stoking what would soon become Confederate rage. Those men were voted out of office to be replaced by radical slave owners. This is Franklin Pierce’s legacy.
2. James Buchanan: Buchanan should have been a good president. He certainly had the resume for it. He had been in Congress and the Senate. He had served in several international diplomatic posts, and had recently been Secretary of State. Only . . . he did not seem to understand that the nation was falling apart.
Buchanan was not necessarily a racist (at least no more than the averagely indifferent citizen of the time), but he did preside over and approve of the Supreme Court’s worst decision in the Dred Scott case (briefly: an 1857 decision that stated that a slave living in a free territory, for no matter how long, even in a state where slavery had been outlawed, was not entitled to their freedom. Essentially what this stated was that black people could never be free in America.)
Buchanan was a career opportunist, taking advantage of the popular social trends in order to keep himself in office. He was rather similar to the modern politician who allows polls to dictate policy. Buchanan has gone down as a historical disgrace.
3. Andrew Johnson, who was spitefully impeached from office by political enemies, was little more than a Southern politician whose only opposition to the Civil War was the breaking up of the union. He was pro-slavery and, considering the newness of emancipation, his plan was to restore the desiccated South to its former glory. And while slavery was legally no longer an option, that did not mean that Southern plantation owners who were still whipping their workers, and refusing to pay them for their labor, should be prosecuted. Throughout every year of his brief presidency Johnson worked to undermine Reconstruction, that lost time when the nation, briefly, attempted to make up for its hundreds of years of mortal sin.
There are plenty more characters to detail (check out King Leopold II of Belgium and how he ruled to Congo, or the volumes and volumes on Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong), but this is now among the longest pieces I have composed for this site. The point is that with so much horror (and, let us admit, the occasional greatness) there is really no point in sitting back and trying to rank accomplishments on a top 10 list. History is far more complex that that. What really matters, now, with all these events buried in an increasingly speculative past, is the impact that it has on today. How have we changed? In what ways do we see the world differently, if at all? How have the definitions of good and evil changed as time goes by? And what have we done to deserve all of this?