Everyone knows the big ones, like Washington and Lincoln. Everyone knows the recent ones. But the other ones – the ones we don’t carve into mountainsides – those can be tricky. There’s been fewer than 50 Presidents in US history, which makes it a much smaller data set than Countries of the World… and yet the guess rates are pretty similar. So let’s brush up on the most forgotten US Presidents in history and see why that might be.
Note: The Sporcle quiz, US Presidents, has been played over 8 million times! Using the results of the quiz, we’ve compiled a list of the most forgotten US Presidents. Next to each US President, you will find the percentage of users who are able to remember them based on data from the quiz.
The Five Most Forgotten US Presidents
Millard Fillmore • 59.8%
Unlucky number 13 comes in at the fifth most forgotten. Fillmore was sworn into office after the death of President Zachary Taylor, and served as President from 1850-1853. He did not win reelection due to poor popularity. Along with his successors Pierce and Buchanan, he is generally considered to have contributed to the strife between North and South that led to the Civil War. Due to this, and other factors, Fillmore is not ranked very highly among US Presidents by historians and scholars. He was the last of the Whigs to hold the White House.
Franklin Pierce • 58.9%
Maybe unsurprisingly, the fourth most forgotten President is Fillmore’s direct successor. Pierce’s time as President was colored by tragedy from the very start. His young son died in a train accident shortly before Pierce’s inauguration, his Vice President died about a month into the term, and he and his wife spent the first years of the term in grief. Pierce, like Fillmore before him and Buchanan after him, is not remembered warmly by historians. Pierce struggled to manage the quickly dividing factions in both his own party and the country overall, and violent clashes in Kansas served as ominous precursors to the Civil War.
Warren G. Harding • 57.7%
Harding was actually popular during his time as President from 1921-1923. After his death in 1923, journalists and biographers heaped praise onto him. It seemed for a time that he would be remembered fondly. But scandals from his presidency came to light years later, and his reputation suffered. The Teapot Dome scandal in particular, involving the bribery of Harding’s Secretary of the Interior, damaged Harding seriously. Harding has some defenders to this day, but is generally ranked lowly by scholars.
Chester A. Arthur • 56.6%
Arthur was another Vice President who stepped in after a predecessor’s death. James A. Garfield, 20th President, was assassinated less than four months into his first term. Arthur took his oath of office shortly after Garfield’s death, and finished out the term without running for election afterward. He finished the term in 1885, immediately retired and went home to New York, and then died not long afterwards in 1886. Arthur was not plagued by scandals or famous failures, but he also didn’t gain much personal fame during his time in office, which is probably why he’s the second most forgotten US President.
Rutherford B. Hayes • 55.5%
Hayes, the 19th President, is the absolute most forgotten President. He served only one term, from 1877-1881, keeping his campaign pledge not to run for reelection. Hayes fought for the Union in the Civil War before his presidency, but one of his first major acts as President was ending the period of Reconstruction of the American South and restoring them to self-governance. He was a defender of the gold standard of US currency, and took a meritocratic approach to his appointments for the most part, which made him some enemies in his day.
Just Missed the Cut
The next most forgotten Presidents, from sixth most forgotten to tenth, are: James Buchanan, Martin Van Buren, Zachary Taylor, James Garfield, and William McKinley.
Why We Forget
Other than McKinley, every President in the bottom 10 served one full term or less. Harding, the 29th President, was the most recent President to make the bottom 10. Van Buren, the 8th President, is the least recent. This would imply that people know the first few presidents and the most recent ones, and struggle with the middle of the list. This low-guessed list also contains a good proportion of Presidents who scholars rank as average or poor, suggesting people are more likely to remember the “greats”.