25 Dumb Mistakes of American Presidents

Posted by , Updated on October 20, 2023

While American presidents wield significant power, they’re human just like everyone else and make dumb mistakes. Sometimes their mistakes are based on good intentions. Others, however, are rooted in dubious morals, rotten corruption, and the darkest corners of the human soul. Regardless of motivations, stupid mistakes from the highest levels of office are not kept in a vacuum. Quite the opposite. Though we know people are flawed, the office of the presidency should be above reproach and held to a higher standard than everyone else. If it’s not, as you’ll see, the consequences of these 25 Dumb Mistakes of American Presidents can carry on for generations.


George H.W. Bush and His "No New Taxes" Pledge

george hw bushSource: https://www.nytimes.com/1992/03/04/us/1992-campaign-white-house-bush-says-raising-taxes-was-biggest-blunder-his.html

During his bid for the presidency in 1988, George H.W. Bush famously said, “Read my lips: no new taxes.” While that promise effectively helped him win the election, it came back to bite him in 1990 when he compromised with the Democrats and did, indeed, raise taxes, breaking the pledge. It was such a big mistake, it cost him re-election in 1992. He admitted it to be his greatest mistake and said he’d do it differently if he could.


Bill Clinton Lying about Having an Affair

ClintonSource: https://www.history.com/topics/1990s/monica-lewinsky

In the late 90’s, President Clinton’s second term in office was embroiled in controversy over an affair with his intern, Monica Lewinsky. Their sexual relationship went from 1995 to 1997, and when the relationship became public, Clinton initially denied the allegations and then later admitted to them. He suffered an impeachment from the U.S. House of Representatives before being acquitted by the Senate, but ultimately he tarnished the respect of the office and his own legacy.


Thomas Jefferson's Embargo Act of 1807

jeffersonSource: https://www.thoughtco.com/embargo-act-of-1807-1773316

President Jefferson had many successes while in office, but this certainly wasn’t one of them. At the time, British and French privateers regularly seized control of American ships. Outraged by it, the bill was intended to stop American ships from trading in foreign ports as an attempt to punish the French and British economies. However, it had very little effect on them and backfired on American workers and the American economy. It also increased hostility between America and the British, sending them straight to war in 1812.


Theodore Roosevelt Discharging the African-American Soldiers at Fort Brown

teddy rooseveltSource: https://www.theodorerooseveltcenter.org/Learn-About-TR/TR-Encyclopedia/Race-Ethnicity-and-Gender/The-Brownsville-Incident.aspx

On August 13th, 1906, one white man was injured and another killed in Brownsville, Texas. White townspeople blamed the recently stationed African-American soldiers at Fort Brown for the assault. Despite white soldiers attesting that all the African-American soldiers were at the fort during the attack and a court cleared the men of all wrong-doing, President Theodore Roosevelt dishonorably discharged all 167 men. They lost their careers, salaries, pensions, and honors. Later investigations determined and solidified the soldier’s innocence, and in 1972, Congress reversed Roosevelt’s order and gave restitutions to the soldiers.


George W. Bush and Mission Accomplished

George W BushSource: https://www.today.com/popculture/bush-admits-mistakes-defends-decisions-wbna39976132

On May 1st, 2003, President George W. Bush stood on the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln and declared “Mission Accomplished” after successful military operations in Iraq, toppling Saddam Hussein. However, the mission was far from accomplished, and America was only beginning to be entangled in a war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bush admits it to be one of his many mistakes.


George Washington and the Whiskey Revolt

George WashingtonSource: https://www.history.com/topics/early-us/whiskey-rebellion

During Washington’s presidency, the government was strapped for cash and needed a way to make more revenue. Alexander Hamilton advised a whiskey tax which Washington eventually signed into law. The results were disastrous, causing small business owners to violently revolt. Fearing a revolution, Washington himself led troops to stomp out the revolt. Things eventually settled down, but the act was one of many issues that sullied the Federalist party’s chances of winning the presidency later on.


John Adams and the Alien and Sedition Act

john adamsSource: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/adams-passes-first-of-alien-and-sedition-acts

Another big problem that ruined the Federalists was John Adams’ epic mistake of signing the Alien and Sedition Acts into law. This act gave the president more power in dealing with foreign nationals and tightened rules on immigration and aliens becoming citizens. While Adams didn’t enforce the law, Thomas Jefferson seized the opportunity and called it unconstitutional and despotic.


Jimmy Carter and the Iran Hostage Crisis

jimmy carterSource: https://www.history.com/topics/middle-east/iran-hostage-crisis, https://www.businessinsider.com/jimmy-carter-iranian-hostage-crisis-2015-8

In 1979, during President Carter’s time in office, 52 Americans were held as hostages in Iran. As the crisis brewed, Carter took months to act. He admitted he could have “wiped them off the map” but instead opted to send rescue helicopters in April 1980. The rescue mission was a total failure with eight serviceman dead and zero hostages rescued. Many historians agree it cost him his bid for re-election.


Barack Obama and the Disaster in Libya

barack obamaSource: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-36013703

With the revolts and uprising happening in Libya in 2011 and the eventual ousting of dictator Muammar Gaddafi, President Obama admitted one of his greatest mistakes was not being prepared for, but ultimately intervening in the situation.


Ronald Reagan and Iran-Contra

reaganSource: https://www.history.com/topics/1980s/iran-contra-affair

With Americans kept hostage by Iran-backed terrorists in Lebanon, Reagan was determined to bring them home. His National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane said the Iranians had approached them with an arms deal and said it would not only bring the American hostages home but help them build better relations with Lebanon and provide them funds to fight the contras in Nicaragua. The problem – America had a trade embargo with Iran. Reagan signed off on the deal. When word got out, Reagan denied it and then later admitted to the deal and said it was a mistake. It almost brought down his whole presidency.


William Henry Harrison Standing in the Cold without a Coat

wh harrisonSource: https://www.theguardian.com/world/richard-adams-blog/2011/apr/04/william-henry-harrison-worst-president

If you hadn’t heard yet, President William Henry Harrison was America’s worst president. Supposedly, to show people how tough he was, he stood out in the freezing cold rain without a coat during his very long inauguration. He gave a two hour inaugural address, the longest in history. Subsequently, he caught a cold and spent most of his presidency fighting a fever and pneumonia. He died after 30 days, 12 hours, and 30 minutes of being president.


Dwight Eisenhower and the Domino Theory

eisenhowerSource: https://www.history.com/topics/cold-war/domino-theory

During the 1950’s, President Eisenhower gave a speech about the “Domino Theory,” which claimed if Vietnam fell to Communism, the rest of Southeast Asia would follow. The doctrine heavily influenced policy for decades and is one of the biggest reasons for continual intervention in Vietnam leading up to the Vietnam War, which saw the deaths of thousands of people. Once Vietnam eventually fell to Communism, it didn’t have the effect that Eisenhower stated and the theory is now widely discredited.


James Madison and the War of 1812

madisonSource: https://www.carolinajournal.com/opinion-article/james-madisons-costly-mistake/

From George Washington to James Madison’s time in office, the British had treated the recently formed United States with contempt, terrorizing their ships, and forcing their seamen to work for them. Madison went to congress with a declaration of war and he got it. It was his biggest mistake. The British came down hard on America, invading Washington D.C. and burning the Capitol and White House to the ground. While Madison had just cause to declare war, he didn’t have a plan to win it, risking an entire nation to potential conquest and collapse shortly after it had won independence.


Woodrow Wilson Not Compromising on the Treaty of Versailles

woodrow wilsonSource: https://www.cato.org/policy-report/mayjune-2014/woodrow-wilsons-great-mistake

After World War I, Woodrow Wilson unleashed uncompromising and vindictive terms to the losers of the war, specifically the Germans. The demanding reparations severely punished the country, causing resentment and emblazoning more nationalist sentiment. Later, Hitler used it as one of his primary political weapons against the Allies.


John F. Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs

JFKSource: https://www.jfklibrary.org/JFK/JFK-in-History/The-Bay-of-Pigs.aspx

Before President Kennedy came into office, the Bay of Pigs plan, an operation led by Cuban exiles to invade and overthrow Fidel Castro, had already been devised and underway by Eisenhower’s CIA. Kennedy had serious reservations about the operation, afraid it would lead to World War III with the Soviets, but signed off on it anyway. The invasion was a total failure with the Cuban exile forces crushed against Castro’s 20,000 strong army. The error ultimately led to Cuban Missile Crisis.


Andrew Jackson and the Trail of Tears

jacksonSource: https://www.history.com/topics/native-american-history/trail-of-tears

President Jackson was no friend to the Native Americans during his time in office. On May 28th, 1830, he signed into law The Indian Removal Act, which forced Native Americans off their land in southeastern states and made them relocate out west past the Mississippi. Why did he do this? Because white settlers wanted more land to grow cotton and asked the federal government to intervene. As a result, he became a genocidal president. On their way out west, at least 3,500 Creeks and 5,000 Cherokees died.


Warren G. Harding and the Teapot Dome Scandal

warren g hardingSource: https://www.wyohistory.org/encyclopedia/teapot-dome-scandal

Considered the biggest scandal at the highest levels of U.S. government before Watergate, the Teapot Dome Scandal all started when President Harding made the mistake of appointing his poker-buddy, Albert Fall, to be his secretary of interior. Fall convinced Harding to transfer oil reserve land from the Navy to his cabinet office. Harding obliged, and Fall started making backroom deals with oil businessmen to drill in those areas in return for monetary gifts. Harding died before the scandal became public, and many historians speculate if he hadn’t, he likely would have been impeached.


James Buchanan and the Secession Crisis

buchananSource: https://www.thoughtco.com/president-james-buchanan-the-secession-crisis-1773714

President Buchanan governed a nation that was greatly divided between North and South. Despite plenty of opportunities to try to bridge gaps and bring the country together, he made things worse by stating secession was illegal, but that the federal government couldn’t do anything about a state seceding. This message only angered both sides even more, and he was considered useless to helping the situation.


Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Japanese Internment Camps

FDRSource: https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/japanese-american-relocation

With the aftermath of Pearl Harbor and the American entrance into World War II, President Roosevelt ordered people of Japanese descent to be interned in isolated camps through executive order 9066. A total of 117,000 people were interned from 1942 to 1945. A Supreme Court decision ended the order, and it’s considered one of America’s most shameful civil rights violations.


Herbert Hoover Refusing to Help during The Great Depression

Herbert_HooverSource: http://blogs.britannica.com/2009/01/6-hoovers-attack-on-the-bonus-army-top-10-mistakes-by-us-presidents/

While the Great Depression was three years old, twenty-five percent of Americans were out of work. Americans suffered malnutrition and bad health as a result. Regardless, President Hoover refused to intervene, believing government help wouldn’t solve the problem. Naturally, Americans turned against him, and he became a political pariah. Not even the Republican party wanted anything to do with him.


Richard Nixon and the Watergate Scandal

richard nixonSource: https://www.history.com/topics/1970s/watergate

Perhaps one of the most famous of modern American political scandals, the Watergate scandal erupted on June 17, 1972 when burglars were caught inside the office of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate complex. They were tapping phones and stealing documents. As things unfolded, Nixon took aggressive steps to cover up the scandal, but once his role was revealed, he resigned from office and, as you’ll soon find out, was pardoned. It changed American politics forever, making people question the role of the presidency ever since.


Gerald Ford Pardoning Richard Nixon

gerald fordSource: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/president-ford-pardons-former-president-nixon

After the Watergate Scandal and Richard Nixon’s resignation, Congress accused Nixon of obstruction of justice and likely would have tried and convicted him for it. However, President Ford announced he was pardoning Nixon of the crime, arguing that they needed to put the tragic scandal behind them rather than polarizing the public more. Both sides lambasted Ford for it, and few agreed with his decision, ultimately ruining his chances to win the election in 1976.


Lyndon B. Johnson Staying in Vietnam

LBJSource: https://www.nytimes.com/2001/06/29/opinion/lying-about-vietnam.html

President Johnson inherited the Vietnam conflict, but he could have ended it at any time. The Pentagon Papers proved he knew it was a losing war but decided to stay in anyway because he couldn’t stand the idea of America losing a war. Instead, he lied about the costs and the prospects of the war, leading to a long, costly, and hopeless outcome. 58,000 American lives and several million Vietnamese lives were lost by the time the Vietnam War ended.


Abraham Lincoln Picking Andrew Johnson as His Running Mate

lincolnSource: http://theweek.com/articles/443168/what-learn-from-abraham-lincolns-greatest-mistake

As the Civil War subsided, President Lincoln wanted to find ways to bring the country back together again. He figured a bipartisan coalition would help heal past wounds and the wounds of war, so he chose Andrew Johnson as his running mate to further reconciliation. Of course, as we’ll see, this mistake proved disastrous. After Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, Johnson became President and did nothing to help reconstruction.

If you can’t get enough of American history, you need to check out 25 Great Native Americans That Helped Define History.


Andrew Johnson Siding with Southern Whites

andrew johnsonSource: https://www.history.com/topics/us-presidents/andrew-johnson, https://millercenter.org/president/johnson/impact-and-legacy

After the Civil War, President Johnson had the task of overseeing American reconstruction. While he tried to bring the Union together, as a southern Democrat, he sided with southern whites when Republicans put forth legislation to protect recently freed African-Americans. When Congress moved forward to enact the 14th Amendment giving citizenship to blacks, Johnson tried to block it and told southern states not to ratify it. Eventually, he was impeached by the house and didn’t seek re-election. His reconstruction policies set America back decades and are felt even today.

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