Sean Wilentz: Historians have long looked to a few key criteria in evaluating the beginning of a president’s administration. First and foremost, any new president should execute public duties with a commanding civility and poise befitting the nation’s chief executive, but without appearing aloof or haughty. As George Washington observed at the outset of his presidency in 1789, the president cannot in any way “demean himself in his public character” and must act “in such a manner as to maintain the dignity of office.”
New presidents also try to avoid partisan and factional rancor, and endeavor to unite the country in a great common purpose. In line with their oath of office, they dedicate themselves to safeguarding and even advancing democratic rights and to protecting the nation against foreign enemies. They avoid even the slightest imputation of corruption, of course political but above all financial.
Donald Trump, in each area, has been a colossal failure. The truest measure of his performance comes from comparing his first year not with those of the best — Washington, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt — but with those of the worst.
Over the decades, historians’ ratings of presidents have consistently consigned a dozen or so presidents to the bottom of the heap, including James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Franklin Pierce and, in recent evaluations, George W. Bush. Some of these presidents failed because they made disastrous miscalculations. Others were victims of circumstances not of their own making but whose decisions made things worse.
Still others were accidental presidents of limited skill and credibility who succeeded men who died in office. And then there were a few presidents who abused their position or permitted rampant corruption. Yet the first years of these failed presidencies were not always so bad, and in nearly every case not as bad as Mr. Trump’s.
Take Millard Fillmore, who was elected vice president on the Whig ticket in 1848 and became president when Zachary Taylor died in 1850. Fillmore was a stolid, self-made man who would in time alienate slavery opponents and leave his party in disarray, earning his place among the worst presidents. In his first year, though, he helped to broker the Compromise of 1850, which most of the nation greeted as a great achievement, securing what Fillmore proclaimed (albeit prematurely) as “a final settlement” of sectional discord over slavery.
Fillmore’s successor, the Democrat Franklin Pierce — an amiable man who was pliable and prone to depression and drink — entered the White House in 1853 grieving the death of his 11-year-old son in a train wreck. But Pierce’s successful first year helped lift his gloom, as Commodore Matthew Perry’s momentous first landing in Japan opened that country to trade and the Gadsden Purchase brought what is now southern Arizona and a slice of New Mexico into the United States. Only in Pierce’s second year did his support for the controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act help rip open the national divisions over slavery, threatening the Union and destroying his presidency.
Warren G. Harding — darkly handsome, impeccably dressed and widely adored — acquired a reputation for cronyism, corruption and womanizing that continues to stain the reputation of his administration, which ended when he died of a heart attack in 1923. But while the corruption was very real, the worst of it, above all the Teapot Dome scandal, did not come to light until after his death.
Harding’s first year actually brought some auspicious legislative accomplishments, including passage of the Federal Highway Act of 1921, which invested millions in the nation’s infant highway system. In October, Harding addressed a huge segregated crowd in Birmingham, Ala., and courageously urged equal political rights for blacks, without which, he said, “our democracy is a lie.”
Two months later, he pardoned the socialist Eugene V. Debs, who had been imprisoned for speaking out against World War I; he even insisted that Debs (who had run against him for president from prison) pay a visit to the White House. In public Harding was a paragon of dignity, and his death was universally mourned.
Richard M. Nixon’s first year in office produced mixed results. He continued the Vietnam War but floated reforms such as a guaranteed annual income for the poor. He hinted at retreating from civil rights laws and court rulings, but enforced them. The year also yielded innovations like the National Environmental Policy Act, which Nixon signed into law in January 1970. The mixture of arrogance and paranoia that would lead to the Watergate scandal did not take hold until later.
George W. Bush has made some worst-presidents lists because of the disastrous Iraq war and the collapse of the economy under his watch. But his first year was notable for his post-Sept. 11 leadership, when he rallied the country’s spirit while cautioning Americans not to turn their grief and outrage into reprisals against Muslims. He ended his first year with an approval rating in the Gallup poll of 83 percent.
Only two of the failed presidents had horrendous first years, which, like Mr. Trump’s, were a result largely of their own actions. James Buchanan, a wealthy bachelor, at all times courteous and dignified, connived behind the scenes even before he was inaugurated to help coax the Supreme Court into the calamitous Dred Scott decision of 1857, handed down a few days after his swearing-in and widely considered among the court’s worst.
Calculated to suppress antislavery politics once and for all, the decision instead alarmed Northerners by allowing the expansion of slavery — and it helped set the nation on the political course that ended in civil war. The financial panic of 1857 and subsequent depression, the splintering of the Union and the later exposure of rampant corruption inside the executive branch added to the sense of Buchanan’s fecklessness.
Andrew Johnson, a vituperative racist, was temperamentally and politically unsuited to succeed the slain Abraham Lincoln. His troubles began when he showed up for his swearing-in as vice president drunk and belligerent. Lincoln, aghast, is supposed to have said that he never wanted to speak to Johnson again.
After becoming president through assassination, Johnson at first signaled he would take a hard line against the defeated rebels, but then switched to attacking civil rights for the former slaves, siding with the ex-Confederates and engaging in abusive tirades against the Radical Republicans in Congress. He closed his first year by vetoing the Civil Rights Bill, which would have given the former slaves citizenship. Both houses of Congress swiftly overrode the veto, setting in motion the events that would end with Johnson’s impeachment in 1868.
What do these bad presidents’ first years tell us about Mr. Trump? Some performed reasonably well at first, only to slide into disaster later. Might Mr. Trump grow in the job, making us forget his rookie-season bumbling? Or should we expect more of the same through 2020?
I expect the latter. Mr. Trump’s first year has been an unremitting parade of disgraces that have demeaned him as well as the dignity of his office, and he has shown that this is exactly how he believes he should govern.
Most important, he is the first president to fail to defend the nation from an attack on our democracy by a hostile foreign power — and to resist the investigation of that attack. He is the first to enrich his private interests, and those of his family, directly and openly.
He is the first president to denounce the press not simply as unfair but as “the enemy of the American people.” He is the first to threaten his defeated political opponent with imprisonment. He is the first to have denigrated friendly countries and allies as well as a whole continent with racist vulgarities.
George Washington warned that the actions of a president “may have great and durable consequences from their having been established at the commencement of a new general government.” If history is any guide — especially in light of the examples closest to his, of Buchanan and Andrew Johnson — Mr. Trump’s first year portends a very unhappy ending.
Sean Wilentz, a professor of history at Princeton, is author of the forthcoming “No Property in Man.”