Harry Truman isn’t even remembered as a bad President. Is is the holder of the lowest (measured) approval rating in American history. That doesn’t mean he was the worst President ever, it doesn’t mean he was the worst President at that moment it just means he had the lowest approval rating.
Largely, Truman has been vindicated by history. America was a different place in the early 1950s and late 1940s than it is today. Some of Truman’s policies that ended up being very important and beneficial in the long run, were not popular at the time.
What is popular isn’t always right, and what is unpopular isn’t always wrong. Truman’s approval ratings took a drubbing prior to the election of 1948 when he created the President’s Committee on Civil Rights and advocated policies like voting rights. This incensed Southern Democrats, usually even a popular President might carry 40% disapproval primarily just because of partisan political differences (I think approval ratings from 55-65 are considered decent, higher ones seem to come around because of exceptionally good performance, personal charisma/popularity, or a major military operation or such), and when Truman pissed off his own party he started getting a huge amount of disapproval even from Democrats. Eventually he rebounded and won the election of 1948.
When his rating hit its all time low not long before the end of his Presidency in 1952, the United States was involved in an unpopular war in Korea. Americans didn’t understand why we had gone to help South Korea, they weren’t happy about the fact that it was a hard fought, brutal war. Many people directly linked problems to the removal of Douglas MacArthur and blamed Truman for doing that.
History has eventually resolved that Truman was mostly right for removing MacArthur, who recklessly drew the ire of the Chinese; and that Truman was right for getting us involved in the Korean peninsula. South Korea owes its democratic freedoms today by and large to President Truman, who was willing to fight for the South Koreans when many Americans had no interest in what happened on the Korean peninsula whatsoever and no desire to spend blood and money on people halfway around the world.
Historians, when asked to rank the American Presidents tend to rank Truman in the top 10 on average.
The Presidents who are consistently ranked at the bottom are Warren G. Harding, James Buchanan, and Franklin Pierce. By and large I think all three of these men deserve to be ranked at the bottom.
I’m always torn on picking the worst President, and I think those three men all have sterling resumes in this regard.
In Harding’s favor is the fact that his administration in terms of sheer number of high ranking corrupt officials and scale of said corruption is pretty outstanding. You had the Secretary of the Interior taking publicly owned oil fields and leasing them to private companies in exchange for bribes. You had the first sitting cabinet member to ever be sent to prison. And Fall was just one of many in the Harding administration who were caught red handed dealing in bribes, kickbacks and etc.
Harding himself noted that he was not qualified to be President and that he never should have been elected. Harding’s great failure is, he was Chief Executive and basically had no authority within government. A leader is, fundamentally, supposed to be in charge and get things done. Harding never showed any sign of being in charge, he never got anything done, and his subordinates ran the government, carved out their own private fiefdoms and proceeded to enrich themselves through their offices. The reason I don’t rank Harding as personally “the worst” is because he was never personally connected with any of the scandals. I don’t think Harding was corrupt (or at least not that corrupt), I think he was just extremely incompetent, to a degree that makes him one of the worst President ever, but not the worse.
James Buchanan’s great failure is he did nothing as the South seceded. I think Buchanan was a bad President, but I think his Presidency wasn’t materially different from several other preceding bad Presidents who appeased the South and kept slavery going. Realistically speaking most people were appeasing the South and its slavery for a very long time to avoid a civil insurrection. Buchanan is considered the worst of the slavery-appeasers because he did nothing when the South seceded, however Lincoln’s election was the spark that caused secession, and in truth Buchanan probably could not have done much as a lame duck President to stop it. Buchanan was bad, but doesn’t deserve the title of worst ever.
I think Franklin Pierce is the worst President we ever had. He essentially reopened the question of slavery in the west, he openly aided the spread of slavery, he was indecisive and his policies were weak or ineffective. He suffered from most of the failings that Harding suffered from, he was a weak President who could not lead. On top of that, he supported the Confederacy during the American Civil War. Personal correspondence of his was discovered that showed he was strongly against the War and against abolition, and was in favor of the Confederacy keeping its sovereignty. It’d be akin to Herbert Hoover cheering on the Japanese when Pearl Harbor was bombed, this nearly treacherous view that he took of the war in my opinion makes him the worst President we ever had. Some would argue that is unfair, because he wasn’t President when he sent letters to his pal Jeff Davis, but I think it reveals his general outlook and how important the union was to him. Anyone that could support the Confederacy, who had, not ten years before, taken an oath to lead the country and protect the constitution was an innately flawed man.