Americans have had a rich history of pageantry surrounding the presidential elections. Yes, most of the real power comes from congressional elections, but there’s less excitement to vote for your house representative than it is to vote for your president. Maybe it’s because that, at the end of the day, when things are good or bad all eyes go to the person in charge. Personally, I’m no different from most and everything about presidents, their policies and their ways to the White House fascinate me. Even the loser presidents that no one remembers, like Millard Fillmore. If you’re thinking to yourself, oh what did that guy do? Well, the Compromise of 1850 was signed into law by his pen. James A. Garfield? Before he was shot, he eradicated corruption in the New York postal services. A fantastic civil servant indeed. Ok so he didn’t do that much, but even the most forgettable presidents have some cool stories. Honestly though, what is sometimes more interesting is to look at what might have been.
For as many presidents as we’ve had, we’ve had many more presidential hopefuls, some of whom had a decent shot, and some, well, didn’t. But even the crazy ones are still fun to look at. Now, I’d like to take a look at the top 10 best presidential losers. First, some criteria. This isn’t going to be your dad’s neat and meticulously well researched historical evaluation on their potential performance in office. This list is essentially a list of who was the coolest, badass, and just insane people to ever come *reasonably* close to our highest office. Some even make the list because their campaigns were so awful it’s hilarious. I’ve also decided to exclude losers who either would later become president or had already been president and lost their bid for another term. Sorry Teddy Roosevelt, your Bull Moose’s are pretty impressive, but not enough for this list. This is a list of the prestigious and the relatively unknown, the unlucky and the unfortunate. But even in their losses, they made history. Because they are listed in the history books as the runner-up, and second place ain’t that bad. They still have a Wikipedia page, and isn’t that what truly matters?
Some might be able to remember Mr. Gore and his campaign, so treasure that feeling. You probably won’t remember any of these other people, since the majority of this list had been dead before Gore was even a glint in Papa Gore’s eye. Gore’s claim to fame was he served as Vice President under the previous president Bill Clinton and had overseen the period of momentous growth of American power domestically and abroad. I mean, Bill Clinton was pretty popular, sexual misconduct notwithstanding, and had a laundry list of accomplishments from pretty good foreign policy to excellent domestic performance. You know how we have that huge debt? Clinton had balanced the budget, and we were actually starting to pay off the Chinese who loan us all the money for our wars.
This wasn’t enough for the inventor of the internet, and he was defeated by George Bush Jr., the son of the guy he and Bill beat in 1992. Well, let’s rephrase that. It wasn’t good enough for the people of Florida. Well, let’s rephrase THAT. It was good enough for the people of Florida but not for the Supreme Court. Gore won the nationwide popular vote which makes him unique amongst the rest of the list. However, he lost the more important electoral college vote and what tipped the scale was the state of Florida. The thing is, Bush’s margin of victory was so slim that Florida began recounting their ballots by machine, and the controversy was surrounding “hanging chads” which were people saying they liked Al Gore but not enough to completely punch the punch card next to his name. In a 5-4 ruling, the conservative majority on the Supreme Court stopped the recount and effectively handed the state of Florida, and the election, to George Bush. Really, the margin was so slim they should’ve just given it to Gore who won the popular vote by over 500,000 votes. But they didn’t, making Gore probably the closest to becoming president out of anyone on this list. To cope with his loss, Gore has become an outspoken advocate for global warming and most recently has achieved fame for his documentaries telling us the Inconvenient Truth that everyone is gonna die and it’s basically all our faults. Talk about a sore loser.
In a different timeline, I could easily be writing about President Douglas’ genius maneuvers to compromise on slavery and avert the Civil War. This is not that timeline. That alternate timeline would only be possible if Douglas miraculously gained 50 IQ points via a magic fairy. Douglas was a Senator from Illinois and was instrumental in making the Kansas-Nebraska Act along with president Franklin Pierce. To put it briefly, this bill was so awful it started the first part of the civil war and ruined the political careers of the president that signed it as well as numerous members of Congress. It left the status of slavery in the state of Kansas and Nebraska based on a popular vote during a period of time when you could pretty much murder someone and get away with it if you left town. In short, voter registration laws were somewhat lacking if you catch my drift. People from the North and the South all descended upon the poor plains of Kansas and murdered each other starting shortly after the act was signed, and the conflict continued into the actual Civil War in 1861.
Bad, right? Well, the kicker is this cocky son of a bitch actually ran for president in 1860! The 1860 election deserves a post all of its own, but it is, without a doubt, the craziest election in American history. Douglas ran on the platform of popular sovereignty, allowing the people in any given territory to decide via plebiscite what the statewide policy on slavery should be. You know, because it worked so well in Kansas. Even better, this big balled son of a gun ran under the Democrats, which was at the time to party of the Southerners. Well, he ran as a Northern Democrat because the Southern Democrats didn’t want him. As you can imagine, he suffered a humiliating defeat to Abraham Lincoln. He would die of a fever in the following few months, but it would not erode his badass legacy of really screwing up the country and then asking the country to vote him into the highest office. They didn’t, but sometimes it’s just about the journey and not the destination.
10. Wendell Willkie
He’s someone who didn’t have any prior military or political experience before making his run for president as the Republican nominee. In fact, he was a very successful businessman before clinching the nomination. No, this isn’t Donald Trump, this is Wendell Willkie. Except unlike Trump, the American people didn’t elect this goober to office. Because, also unlike Trump, he was a genuinely nice guy. Roosevelt spoke nothing but high praises for this guy, even during the campaign. To be fair, he didn’t really need to attack Willkie because after the New Deal Roosevelt was adored by so much of the nation and the polls basically gave him the leeway to make out with Willkie in public and still win the election. Following the failure of Herbert Hoover, Republicans would have a hard time beating Roosevelt in an election and never accomplished it despite trying a total of four times. What I like about Willkie is his look, the fact that he really had no shot, and his campaign buttons. Oh my god, as a fan of presidential buttons this guy had some of the best. “Washington wouldn’t, Grant couldn’t, Roosevelt shouldn’t” is not only a fun reference to history but a fun rhyme and a dope ass button. What the Republicans were so bent out of shape over was the fact that FDR was running for a third consecutive term in 1940, something that had never been done due to the unwritten precedent established by George Washington. This led itself to fun buttons like that one, and others like “Roosevelt for Ex-President!” and my personal favorite telling Eleanor Roosevelt to pack her bags. For looking like a mid-level manager of a Barnes and Noble this guy sure was confident.
Nobody makes a button telling their opponent’s wife to pack her bags if they think they’re gonna lose. He was so confident, and on election day he was slaughtered. But he was a total bro about it and even supported Roosevelt in 1944. Total class act, Wendell Willkie.
9. Eugene V. Debs
No, that’s not a Supreme Court case. That’s the name of the most prominent American socialist politician. This is the name of the five-time socialist party flag bearer in the presidential election and of the Socialist Party. Yeah, there used to be a time when Socialism wasn’t such a dirty word in America. Crazy, I know. He peaked in 1912, winning about 6% of the nationwide popular vote which is pretty good cuz this guy was not too handsome, and his political views were very radical. I guess that makes him like Bernie Sanders in a way, but Bernie has that kind grandpa look and Eugene has the creepy mortician look. Still, Debs was an incredibly skilled orator and did a lot for the ordinary worker of America. Although, his orations got him into a little bit of trouble. In 1918 he gave a speech critical of WW1 and the draft and was promptly arrested and thrown in jail. Woodrow Wilson was not a fan of the bombastic balding socialist brigadier. He had violated the Sedition Act of 1918, a wartime bill intended to get rid of any protests against the war, by advocating for resistance to the draft. In his defense, he offered a very Rosa Parks-esque rationale and saying that he had broken the law, but the law was wrong. It didn’t end as well for old Eugene, he was convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison. Down but not out, Debs would later run for president in 1920. But wait, wasn’t he still in prison? Yep, and Warren G. Harding wasn’t so keen on coming over to federal prison for a lively debate. Despite having the most sedentary presidential campaign ever, Debs netted an impressive 3.4% of the popular vote. Okay, that’s not a lot, but he was literally in prison. If you can convince 3.4% of America to vote for a criminal that’s impressive. If you can convince 46.1% to vote for a criminal, they make you the 45th president. Wow, this article is unsurprisingly taking a very anti-Trump stance. At any rate, Eugene V. Debs was a baller and although none of his bids for president were remotely close to succeeding he was a great speaker and a truly inspirational figure in the field of American labor. And he ran from a prison cell, how cool is that? The answer- pretty freaking cool.
8. The Racist Cabal
Strom Thurmond, Harry F. Bryd, George Wallace
American political history has been no stranger to racist, old, white politicians. But there are a plethora of different types of racists. People like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, but we pretty much give them a pass on it. Then there were the defenders of slavery, primarily those from the South who are now generally regarded as very awful people. There were also those who were more or less complicit with racial injustice because they don’t particularly care for minorities, like Woodrow Wilson or current Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. And that brings us to what I have dubbed the cabal of presidential racists. These three gentlemen ran for president in the mid-1900s on a single issue, something not uncommon for third parties. There’s really no point into delving into the individual histories of each of these stellar individuals because it is more or less the same. They all came from the South, and they were all very racist. But they also all gathered large amounts of the national vote, especially in the Deep South. “Segregation now, segregation yesterday, segregation forever” was a particularly vulgar phrase uttered by George Wallace. But what’s one thing these racists did that makes them distinct from the average third-party loser? These bigots actually won states. And most maps typically represent their color as orange, which I believe adds a beautiful aesthetic to the typical red and blue electoral map. Frankly, these guys are all awful and bigoted, but I mean, it is just mind blowing that they not only ran for president but got decent amounts of the popular vote. George Wallace is the last third party candidate to win states in a general election, which to me is kinda unbelievable. And he won states by advocating for Jim Crow and segregation. So they don’t make this list for being good people, but just for the fact they represent America’s racist underbelly often rears its head, even in presidential elections.
And because their orange color really does make presidential electoral maps better, I’m sorry, but I’m a sucker for aesthetics.
7. Henry Clay
You can’t help but feel bad for Henry Clay. Clay wanted nothing more than to be president. He ran officially three times and lost each time. And he came very close, but no cigar. This is a man who has one of the most distinguished records in Congress that would ever be seen for a presidential candidate. He brokered national solutions and found compromises on incredibly difficult and complex issues. The Missouri Compromise, the Compromise Tariff, and The Compromise of 1850 were all largely successful due to Clay’s efforts. That just wasn’t enough for America though. America saw that, and they elected this weird looking guy with a mullet named James K. Polk who annexed like half of Mexico. Would Henry Clay have annexed half of Mexico? Probably not.
Even better, he orchestrated the Corrupt Bargain and guaranteed himself the most valuable position on the cabinet of John Quincy Adams because he loved power and Clay thought that position would help him win the presidency easier in the future. Wrong again Henry. Not only did America not elect Adams for a second term (Adams would later go completely crazy and run with the Free Soilers in the 1840s) nor would they elect your mug for president either. I don’t mean to knock Clay, or what he’s done, I’d wager he’s more well known than a good 50% of presidents. But just like Benjamin Franklin he never made it to the highest chair in the land. And Benny boy got his face on the 100 dollar bill, so he had that going for him. Henry Clay just fundamentally misunderstood what it took to be president, and how America changed after the Corrupt Bargain. He also didn’t understand it is not beneficial for your political career if you’re involved in something called the Corrupt Bargain.
6. George McClellan
Military generals are something that has really gone to shit after World War 2. It’s a good thing because it shows that society has overall had less cataclysmic wars and violence that has promoted the need for such great generals. But still, it’s sad. I just googled officers in the US Army, and I recognized approximately zero names. What the hell, America? In the latest Republican Primary in 2016, the only people with military service were Lindsey Graham, a colonel, Rick Perry, a captain, Jim Gilmore, whose Wikipedia page doesn’t list a rank, and I’m sorry but none of these guys had any shot at actually winning nor were any of them generals. And I mean it’s pretty apparent that neither Bernie or Hillary served in our armed forces. But their party did pardon the draft dodgers, so the expectations were lower. So c’mon Republicans, get your general on!
Now on to McClellan, or “Tardy George” as he was mockingly nicknamed. To understand what exactly is so juicy about the 1864 election you need some context to the beginning of the Civil War. The Union expected a series of quick victories and a speedy end to the war and assigned the bulk of their forces under General George McClellan. McClellan was famous for getting men to follow him and fight for him, and he really cared about his soldiers. Following some early defeats, Lincoln granted McClellan control over the Army of the Potomac, containing over 100,000 men. Lincoln told him to capture Richmond, the capital of the CSA. McClellan did not do this. Instead, he sat around for three months mostly doing nothing because of his fear that they were outnumbered 2-1 (they were not). The Union really had a great window of opportunity to shorten the war and quickly capture the Confederate capital. This is not what happened, and it was partly because of McClellan’s care for his soldiers. Like, this dude really cared about his soldiers, which is normally great because it will prevent hasty and ill-planned assaults taking undue risk to achieve personal glory, but there comes the point where a commander of men needs to accept the reality that he is fighting a war. I don’t think he ever realized that, and as a result, he never really took risks needed to be successful. So he did nothing, and earned the nickname “Tardy George.” He was then fired. Then the North lost more battles because basically almost every general Lincoln appointed did a piss poor job. He was rehired.
McClellan really didn’t know how to be a good general, hell even a decent general. At the Battle of Antietam, which might I add Wikipedia doesn’t even credit him with a victory, he was barely able to defeat an army that had half his men. And he had a copy of Robert E. Lee’s plans! This guy was basically a world class moron. Fast forward to 1864, the now disgraced McClellan is picked by Democrats as the “peace” candidate in the North. Which is ironic, seeing as he had been more involved in the war than almost anyone else in the country. McClellan was the last real chance for Southern victory, but alas it wasn’t enough. Lincoln was reelected by a fairly sizable margin. The kicker? The general who had a reputation for being so beloved by his men, and so cautious with their lives lost the majority of the enlisted vote, even those in the army he had commanded for so long in the Potomac. Maybe it’s just me, but this guy tried to fight and ended up sucking so hard as a general he tried to campaign to end the war entirely. Lincoln, in turn, responded by giving the bearded former general an electoral bitch slap.
5. Barry Goldwater
I think any person who really reads into the history and life of Lyndon Johnson will feel a great deal of sympathy for the plight that he was put in. Vietnam was the quintessential American error of the 20th century, and by the time Kennedy was buried LBJ had almost no choice but to escalate the war. The war would forever tarnish any hopes of his “War on Poverty” and his New Deal policies being the legacy of his time in office. And the thing is, going into Vietnam was an incredibly popular decision! No one was on the national debate stage criticizing increased American involvement in Vietnam, and that brings us to Barry Goldwater. You might be thinking Barry advocated for peace in Vietnam in 1964, before his time. After all, Barry Goldwater kinda sounds like a very weak, dare I say effeminate, name. Nope. In addition to looking kinda crazy, his ideas were kinda crazy too. I’ll put it bluntly, and without nuance, he was probably a moderately racist guy who liked nukes. Boy did this guy like nukes. He wanted to use nukes to win the war in Vietnam. LBJ was the relative pacifist candidate for the country. Oh, and this glasses wearing weirdo also voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, something passed in the wake of the death of John F. Kennedy. He didn’t care. Voted against it.
One of the absolute funniest and best political ads was made in response to Goldwater, and that is a big reason why he is pretty high on my list. The infamous “Daisy” ad was so compelling it was only aired once. I linked it above, but basically it has a little girl counting the petals of daisies in a quaint field. SUDDENLY we hear a military countdown and the camera zooms into her eye to reveal a nuclear explosion- and a loud voice denouncing the candidacy of Barry Goldwater. Words just don’t do it justice, nothing would imitate the pure amount of emotions you would feel if that ad sprung up on your TV for a politician running for office. Fear ads are nothing new, but literally claiming the opposition will start a nuclear war if they win? That’s a bold move, (and not necessarily inaccurate, sorry Barry). Suffice it to say he polled one of the most abysmal popular vote totals of any main party candidate, and the country overwhelmingly rejected the extreme and more than a bit racist policies of the kook that was known as Barry Goldwater.
4. Al Smith
Catholics have a fascinating history when it comes to their place in the United States. Jamestown was founded by Protestants, in what would really be the trend America would go towards with religion in their country. While their discrimination was relatively minor compared to other groups of Americans have faced (slavery, internment camps, you ethnic groups know who you are) Catholics didn’t exactly have it easy. They were primarily kept in weird self-segregated but also like real segregated urban cities across the Eastern seaboard and especially early on worked jobs that paid less compared to the wages earned by WASP stock that was there before them. Eventually, things got better, and Catholics were viewed to be pretty much as good as regular old Protestant white person. HOWEVER there was a pretty big caveat that was made very clear in the 1920s. Following WW1, there was general distrust towards Germans and immigrants from Eastern Europe, (almost all of whom were Catholic) and this was very clear in the movement for prohibition. Prohibition had existed in some form for several decades, but gained steam and popularity in the 1910s and finally resulted in the 18th Amendment which came into effect in 1920. It was no coincidence that most people that were creating, using, and even abusing, alcohol were Catholics. So, the majority of the American electorate actively or subconsciously believes Catholics to be drunkards and just not as good as the original good ol’ Anglo-Saxon Protestant.
Now, enter the Democratic nominee in 1928- Al Smith. Smith was the governor of New York, and it was pretty well known he was a “wet” politician, someone who disregards Prohibition even though they’re an elected official and probably ought to be following it. But more importantly, he was the first ever Catholic main party nomination for president, which is pretty wild when you think about it seeing as Catholicism nowadays has a plurality of followers in America (because the damn Protestants made thousands of different churches, c’mon guys indulgences weren’t that bad). As you might expect, Al Smith did not do well. Radio was becoming big, so the entire nation heard the heavily accented voice of Al Smith, a drunk New Yorker trying to stumble into the Oval Office. I’ll be honest, I respect a man so blatant in his disregard for a federal amendment to the constitution that he literally runs for president and drinks the entire time. The mental picture of an inebriated New Yorker trying to battle with the prim and proper Herbert Hoover also makes me chuckle. Smith is a curiosity, and it would be a bit of a hard sell if you wanted me to vote for him, but not because he was a Catholic or disapproved of Prohibition, and honestly that was the thing that made the Smith pill so hard to swallow for America in 1928. So instead they opted for the Hoover suppository, who would later call in the federal army to disperse a peaceful group of veterans outside Washington D.C. Do you think Al Smith would’ve done that? No, and I honestly don’t know how he would have responded to the Great Depression. That’s another reason why this guy is so funny, in some ways I do wish we would’ve seen the response of the urban alcoholic to America’s largest economic recession. Hell, maybe Al Smith would’ve done the New Deal and been a president who ran for four terms. It’s wild to think about, and it’s crazy to think that the same party that produced this inept nominee four years later produced Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the greatest president in American history (or at the very least in the top 3).
3. James G. Blaine
We now reach the Top 3, the biggest losers of American history. While they may have lost the election, they won in other special ways. Kind of. And yes, you probably haven’t heard of any of these guys, but that’s ok because you’re about to learn what could very well be the answers to $2000 questions on Double Jeopardy. Blaine to this date is the only presidential nominee to come from the state of Maine, and he is also the only nominee to have a last name that rhymes with Maine which I can only assume was destiny. Really, Blaine was a typical highly corrupt Republican Gilded Age politician. And he is pretty unknown, seeing as he was a prominent figure in an era many US History teachers dub “The Era of the Forgettable Presidents” and this bitch never ever became president. And let’s double back to the corruption thing, this guy was textbook for a politician on the take.
Perhaps the most damning examples was a correspondence Blaine had with a contact at a railroad company, the Mulligan Letters. Basically good old Jamesey made favorable legislation for railroad companies that he owned stocks of and then later sold them for an enormous profit. I know what you’re thinking, that’s just depressing and reminds me of the blatant corruption that still exists in Washington. Well, you’re not wrong but what is absolutely hilarious is that one letter, signed and authenticated by James G. Blaine, ended the note with the casual phrase “Kindly burn this letter.” Since I’m writing about it now 130 years later, it is safe to assume that letter never was kindly burned. Talk about being caught with your pants down. I heard the Watergate tapes, and those are literally called the smoking gun tapes, but they don’t even have Nixon saying “Yep let’s break into the Watergate.” I was very disappointed. It was up to 19th century James G. Blaine to make up for my disappointment, and he delivered.
Remember when I brought the fact that Blaine and Maine rhyme? Well, Americans have always been renowned for their ability to come up with fun chants and mantras. From “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today” to “Tippecanoe and Tyler too!” there is no shortage of fun chants. And unfortunately for James G. Blaine, his folksy surname and rural origins were used against him when he ran for president in 1884. Democrats shouted “Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine! The continental liar from the state of Maine!” and I’m sorry if you don’t think that’s so funny/clever you need to reevaluate your standards for the 19th-century Democratic party. It actually gets even better. In one of the truly dirtiest elections in American history, James G. Blaine wasn’t going to take this libel and slander sitting down. He and his Republican cronies found a way to get to his opponent, Grover Cleveland. When old Grover was living in Buffalo, New York, he fathered a bastard child with a woman about a decade before running for president. Oh, and then he had the mother committed to a sanitarium (a loony bin). So, how did the Republicans confront this nuanced and complex issue that was likely a great sense of personal shame for Grover Cleveland? Did they address it carefully and respectfully knowing that it likely would have no bearing on Cleveland’s ability to serve as commander in chief? Hell no, they shouted at Cleveland “Ma, ma, where’s my pa?” which just by itself tops just about any slogan used in American history. The funny part is that Cleveland actually won the election, so his supporters appropriated the Republican jeer but made a slight addition. As Cleveland began to assume his duties, triumphant Democrats yelled “Ma, ma, where’s my pa? Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha!”. I don’t know what about that retort makes me smile despite how many times I read it. Maybe it’s because the clapback doesn’t even downplay Cleveland’s bastard child, but rather gloats that despite this he still managed to win. Maybe it’s because I find it funny that the mantra essentially brags that the horndog Grover is now the top executive of the country. Or, more likely, that it makes me smile thinking of fully grown men screaming these phrases at each other.
I’ll leave you with one last slogan, one that actually significantly screwed Blaine’s chances of winning. The Democrats had essentially been the party of the South during and before the Civil War and even by 1884 there were incredibly strong ties with the Democrats and the South. But weirdly enough the Irish seemed to flock to the party of white supremacy and aristocratic economic philosophies. States like New York and Connecticut determined this election, and Blaine really hated the English so he was hoping the Irish would turn out and vote for him. They did not. Because Blaine’s friend made a comment calling the Democrats the party of “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.” That pissed the Irish off. I don’t know if you’ve ever met an angry Irishman, but they are not very willing to vote for a guy who kinda looks an angry bearded teddy bear. At the end of the day, James G. Blaine is not remembered very fondly or really remembered at all, which is a shame because the election of 1884 is honestly one of the most hilarious displays of mudslinging in American political history.
2. John C. Fremont
Before America was a two-party system between the Democrats and Republicans, it was a two-party system between the Democrats and the Whigs. The Whigs elected two presidents, William Henry Harrison in 1840 and Zachary Taylor in 1848. Both of them died, very quickly, in office. WHH holds the record for shortest time spent as president, dying only a month after taking office. God really hated the Whig party as it turned out. Since, apparently, it’s challenging to keep a national party alive if you can’t even keep your president alive, the Whig party disintegrated after the 1852 election, severely hurt by the death of old Zachary Taylor. But all the Whigs didn’t just die, I mean one very important one did, but the rest went on to form their own political party with various other small parties like the Free-Soilers. They called themselves the Republican party, and they would have a very small influence on American history (sarcasm). And these boys came to play, they fully intended to challenge the Democrats in 1856 for the presidency. Who to pick? The Democrats chose James Buchanan, nicknamed Old Buck, a pro-slavery homosexual from Pennsylvania. Now look, I know the jury is still out on him being gay but he died a bachelor and is reported to have lived with a Senator from Alabama who he called his male companion, and when said companion left for Paris Old Buck was really upset. Regardless, the jury is in on the fact that his opponent, John C Fremont, is totally awesome.
First of all, he’s just about the only French guy to ever seek the presidency in American history. His father and his mother ran to the American South to escape the fact that they were technically making Fremont’s mother’s actual husband a worthless cuckold. After the death of his father, Fremont and his mom were alone (with several small children) leaving Fremont with only his wits and charisma to get him through the world. The dashingly handsome Fremont would impress numerous rich men and politicians, getting him favorable postings in the army and later support for expeditions all across the United States. His most significant accomplishments were a series of voyages all across the continent. Fremont was a damn great explorer, earning him the nickname of “The Pathfinder.” Oh yeah, he also served with distinction in the Mexican-American war. Well, by distinction I mean he was successful but then jealous older officers had him court-martialed. Still, if your haters hate you that much you’ve got to be doing something right. He would later settle in newly annexed California and make his first entrance into politics, being a Senator before pro-slavery forces prevented his reelection efforts. But then opportunity struck for the Pathfinder, as the Republicans needed a candidate, the first ever candidate for the newly formed party. They looked to the bonafide American hero John C. Fremont. Free soil, free men, free labor, Fremont would be the rallying call of those who were tired of the way slavery was spreading in the country. And I’m sorry, but that is one of the best slogans ever. It just works so well. But not that well. Unfortunately, the established Democrats would be victorious in 1856, partly due to loud Southern threats of succession should Fremont win.
What he is perhaps more famous for was how he handled the Civil War. In 1861, Fremont enlisted and was given command of the Department of the West. Almost immediately, Fremont passed a declaration of emancipation preceding both Lincoln and the 13th Amendment. In March of 1861, Fremont proclaimed the state of Missouri to be under martial law and all slaves to be considered free. Unsurprisingly, this raised a fair amount of hell in Washington and resulted in Lincoln, hesitant to lose the border states, to relinquish Fremont of his command on account of his radical handling of the situation. He would be reassigned in 1862, but not before promoting a disgraced soldier named Ulysses S. Grant, and reside in New York City for the remainder of the war. There is so much history in John C. Fremont, so much character in this man who was a cowboy and a politician and a soldier and a lover and a businessman. He hated slavery and fought, in my mind, for the betterment of everyone. At one time, he lived in an expensive European mansion with Hungarian royal guards on Uncle Sam’s dime. The Pathfinder is a truly remarkable and inspiring figure in American history, and while he may not have won the highest office the fact that he even showed up and got a significant portion of the vote is seriously impressive. Vive le Fremont.
1. William Jennings Bryan
Oh gosh, William Jennings Bryan. He’s not really inspiring and doesn’t even really come across as that decent of a person. Why is he #1 then? Well, I think he is probably, without a doubt, the biggest loser of American presidential history. And he’s hilarious. This is a guy who honestly perplexes me. His views were so weird and they seemingly contradict each other all the time. He gave what is widely considered in the top 3 best American speeches of all time but never even really came close to winning the presidency. He was championed as the hero of the poor man but advocated prohibition and the banning of the teaching of evolution. I can’t tell if he was a dumbass or if he really just had such a warped sense of perception in regards to his morals and political philosophy. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Bryan defined the Democratic party in the awkward time between Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson. An entire national party let this insane Christian guy with a seriously awful hairline hijack the whole party. And he wasn’t even successful. Bryan ran for president three times and lost each time. In fact, he lost by a wider margin each time he ran. Maybe because his campaigns were very similar, and as the saying goes if something is broke just try it two more times and just blindly hope that things will change. Spoiler alert William, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting shit to change. The fact that he was kind of a dumbass really doesn’t detract his legacy in American history, and if anything it enhances it because he truly was one of a kind.
Bryan was famous for being one of the first presidential candidates to earnestly pioneer something that would later be called a whirlwind campaign, he traveled hundreds of miles by train all across the country giving speeches. Oh my god, this guy could talk. Everyone who came in contact with him said he had a silver tongue and was one of the most gifted orators they’d ever heard. And he wasn’t speaking to Goldman Sachs, he was going to random towns in the middle of nowhere with a few thousand people in them. He visited cities, towns, and villages and kept on theme with one message- the Cross of Gold. The Cross of Gold speech is one of the most famous, best written, and most over the top rhetorical pieces of writing in American history. One thing about Bryan, he loved poor people, but he also loved the Bible. I know that sounds funny now when our Attorney General is quoting Romans to justify separating poor immigrant children from their parents, but I guess it’s possible to advocate for the poor and be deeply religious. We’ll circle back to that in a bit. I’ll insert the ending of the speech because it drives the point home the most. Bryan combined Jesus with the coinage of silver. A little context, a lot of farmers and poor were highly in debt so they favored silver coinage because it meant inflation, so their loans would be easier to pay off. Banks and wealthier folks approved of the gold standard, the status quo with relatively low inflation. Although saying Bryan didn’t like the gold standard is a bit of an understatement, seeing as he compares it to literally the greatest injustice and subsequent martyrdom in the entirety of Christianity.
“If they dare to come out in the open field and defend the gold standard as a good thing, we shall fight them to the uttermost, having behind us the producing masses of the nation and the world. Having behind us the commercial interests and the laboring interests and all the toiling masses, we shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them, you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”
–William Jennings Bryan
So you’re probably thinking, this guy is a little nuts, and you’re honestly probably right. However, this isn’t just a speech given once or twice to a couple hundred party elites. The text itself was widely circulated and Bryan himself spoke hundreds if not thousands of times during election years, over 500 in 1896, and likely gave that speech or a very similar version of that speech that almost certainly included the famous “Cross of Gold” line which I’m sure he was very proud of when he first thought of it. Those 500 speeches are also what probably sent his hairline into a death spiral to rival Lebron James, and Lebron is a champion. William is not a champion. Still, I have mad respect for this zealous, mildly deranged, campaigner. It was no secret that the American people were a little tired of being screwed over by industrial bosses for the past 50 years and certainly needed an advocate for real progressivism to improve the standard of living for all Americans. William Jennings Bryan was not that man. He lost to William McKinley, who actually spent most of the campaign season relaxed on his front porch while his various underlings did all the grunt work. Bryan wasn’t done though, he ran again in 1900 this time speaking out against what he dubbed the imperialist Spanish-American War. Not a great idea, because the war was fairly popular in America and a lot of people liked the idea of owning colonies, a very fashionable trend as we entered the 20th century, so speaking out against it was unpopular. His other main point, the whole cross of gold fearmongering, was less effective because the economy was doing a lot better in 1900. It’s tough to pitch the idea of Republican caused impending economic ruin when the reality is the majority of Americans are experiencing relative prosperity. A man who is doing well has no need to vote for a weird, probably sweaty, preacher sounding fellow who advocates for a somewhat radical economic policy. So he lost again, this time by an even greater margin. The Democrats took a break from Bryan in 1904, but after losing they went back to WJB in 1908, which was basically an admission that we freaking suck but this guy is the least awful person we can run. In 1908, the Republicans picked William Howard Taft to run for president. Now, I know he sounds lame and easy to beat but what you have to keep in mind is Teddy Roosevelt, president before Taft, loved the guy and basically handpicked Taft as his successor. And America loved Teddy, so they loved Taft as like a weird mutual friend type thing, which was enough for Bryan to not really have a shot. Unsurprisingly, he lost for a third time by his greatest margin to date. Bryan walks away from his three unsuccessful presidential bids as probably one of the most defeated men I can even think of in all of American history.
Now old Bryan was down, but he wasn’t out. The man took his time, prayed a lot, and waited for a Democratic victory in the executive branch. As luck, (or God if you asked Bryan) would have it, the obtuse Taft and the rough rider Roosevelt (in a bid for a third term) split the vote and allowed the quiet professor Woodrow Wilson to win in 1912. As an acknowledgment to his longtime presence in the Democratic Party, Wilson appointed Bryan as his Secretary of State which is kind of a big deal. You know what Bryan did? After two years, this guy decided, no, I’m too moral for this. He resigned in protest of the American handling of the sinking of the Lusitania. In his view, when Woodrow Wilson firmly but politely asked the Germans to stop bombing ships, that was too far. So he resigned, and that was all well and good. I’m not sure what his path to avoiding entering World War 1 would have been, probably just letting the Germans bomb whatever ships they wanted as long as they weren’t carrying silver bullion or stacks of Bibles. But then this fucking guy actually supports Woodrow Wilson when he runs for reelection in 1916. What the hell, dude? Chose a lane. Either you hate this skinny, racist, glasses wearing douche so much that you resigned from his cabinet or you love the well-read, progressive reformer, and you would’ve stayed on board for the full four years. Alright, you’re probably done reading about this guy, right? Nope. There’s one final chapter in the Book of Bryan. And that would be the Scopes Trial. See, during the Roaring 20s America was very much at a crossroad between relying on traditional ideas or embracing new philosophies. Case in point, the theory of evolution. Oh boy, William hated that thing like he hated the gold standard. Bryan hated anything that really spoke out against his literal interpretation of the Bible and its morals, and he spent much of his life advocating for creationism and prohibition. Did he know about the ramifications or the consequences of what he preached? Probably not.
Bryan found his chance to take the national spotlight once again in Dayton, Tennessee in 1925. Substitute biology teacher John Scopes had taught evolution to some of his students and had violated the anti-evolution statewide laws that existed, and Bryan was contacted by the prosecution team. A celebrity of similar status, Clarence Darrow, would be called to Scopes’ defense. These two old men probably made up the two most famous and well-known lawyers in the United States at the time. And these two would be the players who would battle in one of America’s most famous trials, and the first trial to be widely broadcast and followed by the whole nation on radio. To be honest, this trial had very little to do with John Scopes and if he had violated the law. It was a battle of egos, primarily Bryan’s, and a battle of creationism vs. evolution. I mean, it’s hard to take any case seriously when the defense attorney calls the prosecuting attorney to testify as an expert witness on the Bible, questions him for an entire day, and then the entire dialogue is later expunged from the court record. This trial featured a lot of yelling and grandstanding, and it had to be brought out onto the court lawn because there were so many spectators and out of town members of the press causing the courtroom to heat up like a sauna. And it was the middle of July in Tennessee, so Bryan was frying like Sodom and Gomorrah in his formal wear. Ultimately the case was a national spectacle, and for a variety of reasons Clarence Darrow, (that’s a sweet ass name by the way) outwitted Bryan in front of the whole nation. Essentially, I know this might come as a big shock, but religion and science can exist together, and a lot of the Bible is weird, and Darrow essentially said that for the entire world to hear. Yet, Scopes was still found guilty and sentenced to pay a $100 fine, to which he told the judge he felt the fine was unjust and he will continue to break the law as he felt fit. So William Jennings Bryan won! The heretic Scopes was found guilty, and creationism would be preserved, forevermore. Well, except this entire spectacle made Bryan look like a zealous fool and the national dialogue created by the trial would ultimately be harmful to the narrative he was looking to promote in the first place. He had lost in the court of public opinion. And I suppose God wasn’t too happy with how his ideas had been defended in court, because William Jennings Bryan would die five days after the trial had ended at the age of 65. Heatstroke is a likely culprit since he was a both very fat and very old (for 1925), two aspects that likely made strenuous testimony for a week a poor health decision. Some say he died from a broken heart, much like when the one dog died at the end of Where the Red Fern Grows and then the other dog also died because it was so sad.
The trial proved to be, in a way, both the finale and the climax of Bryan’s life. Everything he had advocated for and believed in was essentially being put on trial and he had one last opportunity to give one of his great speeches, this time it would be a speech the entire nation would hear. And it was a total failure. As described in Paper Towns by John Green, now a major motion picture, every person has a bunch of strings holding them up like a puppet. When all those strings get severed, we die. Well, I think William Jennings Bryan had taken one too many debilitating defeats and all his strings finally snapped that day when he died mid-nap, which is the second most common place of death for those of us with above average weights, first being the buffet line at the Golden Corral. It’s a shame that his legendary status is so unknown to most Americans, but the hilarity of his Biblical hijinks will always be a fond memory I keep close to my heart.