The Oscars of Awful

|

Bloggers of the left and on the right have selected the worst people in American history. As you might guess, the lists are rather different.

NEXT: Pot-Smoking Segregationists?

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Here in Georgia, the unquestioned No. 1 would be a guy who didn’t get a mention for either list. I should say he would have been unquestioned 10 or so years ago, before Yankees like me inundated the northern part of this state.

    My own nominee for No. 1 would be the notorious bandit William Quantrill, but quite obviously the criteria for this poll were somewhat…imprecise. I mean, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan? By what standard was either man the “worst” anything?

    I thought it was interesting that the most widely reviled figures in America 100 years ago — the heads of giant corporations like Carnegie, Hill, Ford, Morgan — are hardly represented at all on the left-wing list (neither, for that matter, is Bill Gates), which makes me wonder not only how left-wing these people really are but how much history they have read. Segregationist leaders, with the exception of N. B. Forrest, didn’t make it either, on either list, nor did some other pre-World War II scoundrels like James Wilkinson and A. Mitchell Palmer. Also, I noticed that murderers make the right-wing list, but leaders of organized crime didn’t make either.

    Is there anyone else, by the way, who — mindful that no one in either group saw fit to mention people like Tom Platt or Frank Hague — thinks that Boss Tweed is getting a bad rap just because his name is easy to remember?

  2. I thought the most striking thing about both lists was their lack of historical perspective. Interestingly enough, there were more pre-WWII figures on the lefty list, although this might have more to do with generalized lefty disdain for historical America than with a greater degree of historical knowledge.

    Maybe Hit & Run should do its own version of this exercise: name the people in American history who have done the most damage to the cause of liberty. Personally, I think FDR would have to be close to the top of this list, as he really finished off the Constitution as a bulwark against unlimited federal government.

  3. The thing that’s silly about this (one of the things, really) is: once you get someone like McVeigh on the list, how do you justify putting people above him? Or, for that matter, how do you justify putting any non-mass murderers on the list? I don’t like Hillary Clinton either, but she didn’t blow up children. That we know of.

  4. Any list that doesn’t include Carrot Top is worthless, anyway.

  5. Let’s see. The Right’s top 3 are the Rosenberg’s, Benedict Arnold and Bill Clinton (surprise!) The Left’s top 3 are Joe McCarthy, Dick Nixon and Herbert Hoover.

    The Right seems to get most worked up over treason and blow jobs. The Left gets most worked up over abuse of power.

    I think that’s pretty telling.

  6. Lefty-

    I know what you mean, and I agree. But you come across sounding like concern about treason isn’t all that important, which just bolsters all the wrong stereotypes of the left.

  7. Re: Zathras

    “Here in Georgia, the unquestioned No. 1 would be a guy who didn’t get a mention for either list.”

    Sherman?

    BTW: My choice? William Jennings Bryan…

  8. Silly, silly, silly.

  9. What power did Herbert Hoover abuse? Did they mean J Edgar?

  10. The only difference between treason and abuse of power is that one is internal and one is external.

  11. “Let’s see. The Right’s top 3 are the Rosenberg’s, Benedict Arnold and Bill Clinton (surprise!) The Left’s top 3 are Joe McCarthy, Dick Nixon and Herbert Hoover.”

    Rosenburgs — treason
    Benedict Arnold — treason
    Clinton — abuse of power
    Joe McCarthy — abuse of power
    Nixon — abuse of power
    Herbert Hoover — ???

  12. R.C. Dean writes:

    Maybe Hit & Run should do its own version of this exercise: name the people in American history who have done the most damage to the cause of liberty.

    Great idea! I’ll start with some my nominees:

    1. The Continental Congress, for conscripting unpropertied working folk into the American army to fight the moneyed class’s tax-rebels’ war, and retaining their loyalty through grants of property occupied by Native Americans.
    2. The original signatories of the U.S. Constitution, for enshrining in Article IV, Section 2 interstate enforcement of both slavery and indentured servitude, and with it the notion of persons as property.
    3. Ken Starr, for so abusing the Independent Counsel mandate that the concept was allowed to sunset.
    4. James K. Polk, for overseeing an invasion and takeover of about half of Mexico on the basis of fabricated evidence of imminent threats to national security.
    5. Theodore Roosevelt, for dragging the country into 100-plus years of shaky relations with the nations of the Caribbean, the Pacific and Latin America through a war of mercantilist conquest started on the basis of fabricated threats to national security.
    6. Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush for organizing illegal assasinations, arms sales, and military operations that had previously required Congressional approval, thus weakening the legislature.
    7. George W. Bush and his Congressional allies, for slipping those new federal sentencing rules into the recent “Amber Alert” bill, this weakening the judiciary.

    This was a great idea! Feel free to jump in, kids!

  13. “Personally, I think FDR would have to be close to the top of this list, as he really finished off the Constitution as a bulwark against unlimited federal government.”

    You suppose permanent confinement to the wheel chair was his punishment for that, R.C.?

  14. Where is Harry J Anslinger on these lists??? The godfather of the drug war is just as responsible for the erosion of the constitution as any other person in American history.

  15. The problem is, the farther back you go, the more fundamental the effect of any divergence from freedom. So the highest ranking figures on the list should be those who set us on this path. In that spirit:

    1) the Federalists who hijacked the country in an illegal coup against the Articles of Confederation;

    2) Alexander Hamilton, the author of the Bank Bill and the Pacificus letters, and the central promoter of mercantilist policies on behalf of money and land speculators and manufacturers. Also advocate for a plenary spending power not limited to delegated legislative authority;

    3) the drafter of the first Judiciary Bill in Washington’s administration (Sherman, I think), for pushing the power of the judiciary to its constitutional limits (i.e., creating federal courts inferior to the SC, and not limiting their appellate jurisdiction);

    4) Chief Justice Iredell, the author of the first nationalist opinions;

    5) John Marshall (obviously)–imagine how different things would have been had Spencer Roane got the job;

    6) Joseph Story;

    7) Henry Clay;

    8) Abraham Lincoln;

    9) Teddy Roosevelt;

    10) Woodrow Wilson.

    A lot of folks like J.D. Rockefeller deserve honorable mention, but could not have worked their evil without working through the State–so I limited my list to political leaders. And FDR could arguably bump Henry Clay off the list, but Clay got the benefit of the doubt because of the time factor. A lot of second-tier figures, who actually ran the police state apparatus, also came pretty close: A. Mitchell Palmer, J. Edgar Hoover, Janet Reno and John Ashcroft, for example. And Colonel House, the Machiavelli behind Wilson….

  16. The top vote getters on the Right list are actual bona fide traitors and their list includes more actual traitors throughout.

    That the Left list includes McCarthy and Hoover at the top reveals how little logic actually goes in to their rationale.

    Any leader that one disagrees with can be arguably accused of abuse of power.

    I can?t see putting any presidents on the list outside of maybe FDR because he opened the door to the Cold War by facilitating the Soviets to the egregious extent that he did.

    Murderers are a tough call because they?re not of national prominence and we tend to forget their names unless someone famous was killed. There was a guy out here 5 or 6 years ago that took his daughter out in the desert and set her fire. Pretty bad dude but again, not of national prominence.

    I don?t think FDR or Herbert Hoover were the ?worst? people but I would like to go back in time and slap them both around for their handling of the economy.

  17. I think Kevin Carson’s list is pretty damn good except I might rate Lincoln a little higher.

  18. That the right includes clinton, carter, jackson and chomsky at the top of their list shows how little logic goes into Ray’s rational.

  19. combined top eleven:
    1. Benedict Arnold (33) Richard Nixon (33)
    2. Joseph McCarthy (31)
    3. The Rosenbergs (26) Timothy McVeigh (26)
    4. John Wilkes Booth (24)
    5. Charles Manson (14) Lee Harvey Oswald (14) Aaron Burr (14)
    6. Aldrich Ames (13)
    7. Boss Tweed (10)

  20. only the worsts mentioned on both lists.

  21. I don’t suppose FDR stomping the Nazis counts for anything towards advancing liberty. No, didn’t think so.

  22. Personally, I find it tough to understand getting so worked up about historical lists that serve no purpose, and accomplish nothing, and which do not help solve any of the problems we have TODAY.

  23. How the hell did Aaron Burr get on either list, let alone both? His crimes are pretty minor in the grand scheme of history, no? It’s a bit like listing Shoeless Joe Jackson.

  24. Aaron’s a pretty unsavory fellow, I think he was probably one of the worst people in American history, even if his scheme never did come to fruition. What he tried to do would have reshaped North American history considerably.

  25. Not to mention his efforts to turn partisan disagreements (which was basically the problem between him and Hamilton) into, literally, life and death struggles.

  26. joe: I found it interesting how much agreement the righties and lefties seemed to have. (I also have an automatic impulse to think if the right and left both hate you, you must be on to something and can’t be all that bad.) But most of these 11 two-time losers probably deserve to be there, just not in that order.

  27. It was my grampa and (maybe) yours, and a whole lot of other brave men who gave their lives to stomp the Nazis. NOT the smirking mug behind that long cigarette on a stick.

    Maybe not, but it was FDR who took the initiative to funnel large amounts of aid to Great Britain and the USSR long before we officially got involved in the conflict. We’ll never know what would’ve happened had he not done this, but there is a distinct possibility that one or both of these countries wouldn’t have survived, or more likely would have sued for peace. Also, FDR began gearing the armed forces for war in 1940, leaving the US much more prepared in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor.

    There are numerous actions carried out by FDR that I despise, including a couple tied to the war, but I think he deserves credit for facing up to the nature of the Nazi threat at a time when most of the public was still enchanted with isolationism.

  28. There is no doubt as to the guilt of the Rosenbergs, but also that the big fish was allowed to escape punishment, lest the Soviets find out that we had cracked their code. They were made scapegoats, and Ethel, although complicit, may very well have less involved and perhaps did not deserve the death penalty. If they allowed (at least) one spy to go unpunished, they could have also given mercy to another.

    Let us agree that the Rosenbergs stand in place of the many of their ilk who went unnamed, perhaps undetected, and unpunished.

    And BTW, why is Aldrich Aimes on the list and not Robert Hansen?

    The biggest fallacy behind this little poll is that it fails to take into account any weighting scheme to quantify the “badness” of each malefactor. One mention = one vote. Hence GWB and WJC get ranked so high even though it’s clear they in no way compare to a mass murderer Timothy McVeigh.

    How would one construct such a weighting system? Give each blogger 1000 points to distribute amongst the 20 persons he considers worthy of disrepute. Then, let them explain how they can rate whatever nastiness they associate with GWB or WJC as worse than killing hundreds of innocents (McVeigh), destablizing world politics and American safety via treasonous espionage (Rosenberg). Why TR’s misguided military actions which killed thousands is deemed worse than Wilson’s which killed many times more.

    And why does s.m. koppelman criticize Nixon, Reagan and Bush 41 for waging war without a Congressional declaration? Truman waged war in Korea, as did Ike who brought about the ceasefire. And Kennedy okayed assassination plots against Diem and Castro (one successful, one not). Could it be that koppelman particularly dislikes Republicans? Yeah, that’s obviously it.

  29. Roger Kennedy’s book from a few years ago on Burr, Hamilton and Jefferson makes a case that Burr’s current reputation owes a great deal to the fact that both Jefferson and Hamilton hated him, and to his own lack of understanding of how to make himself relevant in the new style of politics in early 19th-century America (in addition, much of Burr’s correspondence and other writings did not survive him, so in a manner of speaking he cannot defend himself posthumously as Jefferson and Hamilton can).

    Now, the fact is that both Jefferson and Hamilton can lay claim to great achievements in public office, and as writers and political theorists as well. The most Burr’s defenders can say is that he would have done as well given the opportunity. However, the fact that Burr’s traditional reputation closely tracks the worst things said about him by his major political rivals while he was alive ought to raise questions about whether that reputation is deserved.

    To contemplate a list of “worst Americans” that includes Aaron Burr should makes us reflect on how lucky we are in this country. What would a list of worst Russians, Germans or Chinese look like by comparison?

  30. Jean Bart’s list is interesting, but come on, Monroe at #1 for his Doctrine? And calling it merely “imperialist” when it was mostly taken as anti-imperialist; i.e., warning recent colonial powers not to try to regain their colonies in the Americas?

    Sure, you can argue that in the long run having the European powers not act imperialist in the Americas would aid the USA’s imperial ambitions, but I hardly think it ranks up there as #1.

    OTOH, several of the points raised in that list are very good ones. Japanese internment should probably be mentioned as well. Also, it’s kind of odd to mention just the Republican Party for the Compromise of 1877 (admittedly very bad) and not, well, the Democratic Party, though I suppose that they get sort of included with the slaveholders.

  31. John Thacker,

    Well, the Democrats were supposed to screw over the freedmen; it was a given. Which is why lack of Republican courage on this matter is even more galling – if you ever get a chance read about Hayes’ trip through the South post-election (I mean, post-compromise). Its a whole lot of forced wishful thinking about future race relations. Anyway, I’m not give the Democrats a pass per se, I’m just arguing that their efforts weren’t out of character.

    Eric is basically right; America was hardcore isolationist prior to Pearl Harbor, and without the largely secret war FDR prosecuted toward the run-up to that attack, Britain would have been toast. Also, to be frank, Leclerc’s Free French Army would not been able to kick the crap out of the Italians in Africa, nor would so many colonies have turned against Vichy in 1940 and 1941 without American lend-lease aid. People tend to forget that not only did the US arm and clothe its own troops, it also armed and clothed the several hundred thousand Frenchmen (one being my father, another my uncle) who eventually landed in France to take their country back and kick some Nazi ass. All of this started with FDR’s secret war, lend-lease, etc. BTW, I thank FDR for sending the nurses, because one became my mother. 🙂

  32. Aaron Burr is getting a bum rap. I mean, yeah, he should have shot Hamilton years earlier, but come on.

  33. milkchaser, it’s inaccurate to say the Rosenberg’s “destabilized” world politics. By levelling the balance of power, they achieved MAD and may well have prevented more shooting wars. This is not to defend them, but to point out that destabilizing is not always bad, and stabilizing not always good.

  34. Interesting that the Rosenbergs appear on both lists. Haven’t there been subsequent reviews of that case that cast significant doubt onto the verdicts?

  35. This discussion is, in roughly equal parts, fascinating and revolting. One would presume that friends of liberty would evalute historical figures based on whether they advanced or damaged the cause of expanding freedom in America and around the world. By that standard, many of the figures mentioned on both lists and in subsequent posts have no business being there. FDR is a good case of someone with mixed, but on balance negative, legacy, and I have appreciated the discussion of his policies. But this level of sophistication isn’t reflected in much of the other discussion. For example, the mentions of Jackson and Polk exhibit very little understanding of their domestic policies (which were closer to the free market than their adversaries) or how the Westward expansion of American freedom ultimately resulted in the (relative) liberation of millions. Would Texas, California, and the American Southwest have been more free and prosperous if they had continued to be subject to Mexican tyrants, bureaucrats, and rogues? Come on, now, read a little history — and not just the ideologically tortured variety.

  36. I’m assuming Burr is on both lists because of the Burr Conspiracy rather than the duel.
    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/duel/sfeature/burrconspiracy.html

    Trying to forge your own little empire out of part of the US is generally a no-no.

  37. Oh, come on guys. Can’t we come up with a top 20 “Worst Americans” list more representative of the collective consciousness of this comments engine?

    1. John Ashcroft
    2. FDR
    3. Gee Dubya Booosh
    4. John Ashcroft
    5. Trotsky (He lived in Mexico, which is pretty much the same as being Californian, which is almost like being American)
    6. John Ashcroft
    7. Bill O’Reilly
    8. Ass Johncroft
    9. J. Edgar Hoover
    10. Any Kennedy except Ah-nuld. We like him ‘cuz he likes blowjobs and pot, which are the primary party planks of left libertarianism, a two-board party.
    11. John Asscraft
    12. Richard Nixon
    13. Murry Rothbard – for disagreeing with the Mises-ians.
    14. Milton Friedman – for following Mises and disagreeing with Rothbard.
    15. Ayn Rand – for not giving a damn what Rothbard or Friedman thought, only caring about whether they had bulging, masculine pectorals, which she could selfishly use to pleasure herself in a climax of mutually selfish self pleasuring.
    16. Bill Gates. He may be an ueber-capitalist, but we hate his guts anyhow because we’re collectively not really sure if we’re smart, informed libertarians, or just populist crackpots.
    17. John Ashcroft
    18. John Ashcroft
    19. Anybody in this comments section who disagrees with me.
    20. John Ashcroft*

    *Note: This list is purely for satirical purposes, which, the last time we checked, were protected under the 1st Amendment. Please don’t hurt me Mr. Ailes. I’m trying to be fair & balanced.

  38. “It was my grampa and (maybe) yours, and a whole lot of other brave men who gave their lives to stomp the Nazis. NOT the smirking mug behind that long cigarette on a stick.”

    By that dumb logic, NB Forrest shouldn’t be on the list because it was mainly the Klansmen he recruited, and not him personally, who carried out their terrorist campaign. The same argument can be made about Hoover, and virtually every elected offcial.

    Some of the Left’s list is a little silly, and lacks perspective (Ronald Reagan? Robert McNamara? I’m not a fan of either, but come on…George Lincoln Rockwell – a man of such little significance. Herbert Hoover – does’t saving millions of Europeans from starvation count for something?)

    But the right’s list is just deranged. Jesse Jackson? What did he ever do? Hillary Clinton? Bill? Janet Reno? Robert Byrd? The people who put this list together genuinely see opposition to Gingrich and Bush on policy matters as treason.

  39. Keynes was a cock, too.

  40. And I hate to sound like a Morning Show host, but xray’s combined list is actually pretty good.

  41. “Interesting that the Rosenbergs appear on both lists. Haven’t there been subsequent reviews of that case that cast significant doubt onto the verdicts?”

    Frankly, I have been bored from day one with the Rosenberg case, so I may be off here, but I believe the Venona papers made available with the fall of the Soviets confirmed that they were quite, quite guilty of being Soviet agents. Your hardcore Stalinist apologists will never admit as much, of course, so the mini-industry spawned by the Julius and Ethel churns on.

  42. They also reveal that Julius was a bit player, Ethel was a typist, and (Greenglass?) the guy who testified against them was the big fish. No, not doubt on the verdict, just questions about the sentence. (The law only allows the death penalty for treason on behalf of an enemy during time of war. Their espionage happened during World War II, when the Soviets were our ally.)

    Once again, the sympathy for the targets and their ideological fellow travellers can be laid at the feet of overzealous anticommunists. If they’d been given appropriate sentences, no one would have remembered their names 2 years later.

  43. My apologies for typing “Herbert” instead of “J. Edgar” as it should have been. Big difference.

  44. I think Jean Bart’s list is basically on target, but ultimately, the winners of the American Evil Contest come down to two revolting contestants: the slavedrivers (Jefferson Davis & Co.) and the Indian-killers (Andrew Jackson & Co.). The real question is whether there is a way of deciding between them or whether we have to award a tie. The slavedrivers enslaved human beings and got us into a big war, the Indian-killers engaged in ethnic cleansing and got us into lots of little wars. Hard to tell them apart.

  45. You know, a list of CURRENT worsts might be more useful (or fun). I have an inkling as to who might be #1 on Apis’ list……

  46. milkchaser wrote:

    “Hence GWB and WJC get ranked so high even though it’s clear they in no way compare to a mass murderer Timothy McVeigh.”

    Why? Should acts of violence with unclean motives and terrible results be exempt if they are somehow offical? Serious charges are being leveled against GWB, for instigating a war largely on the basis of personally connected financial interests. And charges a lot more serious than being a selfish lover were leveled against WJC, for turning what was essentially a lopsided cultural war into an evener and hotter cultural war, with the result that many more people died and were impoverished; moreover, many found it plausible that his personal scandal might have been a motivating factor a la “Wag the Dog”. If one were to truly believe either of these factual positions, I find it absolutely plausible to rank either man worse than McVeigh. In defense of the latter, 1) in his strange way, he viewed his act as a means to a better end for all of society, rather than merely a sacrifice of others to his personal power, and 2) he knew he would very likely have to stand accountable for his actions, which politicians in this country almost never do. I’m not saying either GWB or WJC is guilty of these charges, just that I find their consideration for the list reasonable.

  47. FDR stomping the Nazis? Internecine conflict. 😉

  48. (1) Monroe (his imperialist doctrine)
    (2) Instigators, promoters, etc. of the Confederacy (their own liberty on the backs of slaves)
    (3) Jackson (Indian removal)
    (4) Slaveholders generally
    (5) Polk, Zachary Taylor, etc. involved in the Mexican-American war; and the bastards who jailed Thoreau
    (6) The Republican Party, including Hayes, for abandoning blacks to Southern tyranny in the “compromise” of 1877
    (7) 47th Congress for enacting the Chinese Exclusion Act
    (8) Instigators of the war with Spain; directors of the genocidal invasion of the Phillipines
    (9)Woodrow Wilson for introducing segregation to the Federal Government & DC generally.
    (10) J. Edgar Hoover

    “The welfare of humanity is always the alibi of tyrants.” – Albert Camus

  49. Ooooh, I liked Mr. Carson’s list better than mine, but Jean Bart’s list is my favorite so far. Personally, I find it tough to understand getting so worked up about the New Deal when Jim Crow and the ethnic cleansing of Indian lands are on the same docket.

  50. EMAIL: pamela_woodlake@yahoo.com
    IP: 62.213.67.122
    URL: http://photo.online-photo-print.com
    DATE: 01/20/2004 11:23:53
    Morality by consensus is frequently morality by convenience.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.