Lesson Plan: Most Despised US Presidents

Historian Douglas Brinkley and Top 4 Presidents

Historian Douglas Brinkley discusses the four Presidents who routinely rank in the top 4.


This lesson explores why five U.S. presidents were hated by groups of Americans, including Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon. Students will explore materials from C-SPAN's Presidential Survey and engage in a choice board activity. The lesson culminates with students reflecting on how presidents have been criticized historically and in contemporary times and offers two extension activities.


  • SET UP

    This lesson offers several options for you to use with your students whether you are teaching in class, using a hybrid model, or engaging through distance learning. It can be completed in steps as a class or students can move at their own pace and complete the activities independently.

    You can post links to the videos in the lesson along with the related handouts and engage in discussion to share responses on a discussion board or learning management system.

    You can also save and share the following Google resources for students to use with this lesson.

    Handout: Graphic Organizer (Google Doc).

    Resource: Choice Board Activity (Google Slides).

    In Google, choose "File" then "Make a Copy" to get your own copy. You can make any needed adjustments in the instructions such as which activities students need to complete, when it is due, etc. and then make it available to them via Google.


    Pose the following brainstorming questions to your students, have students record their responses in their graphic organizer, share the responses with a partner, and then with the class if they choose

    • What makes a president good or bad?
    • Why do people oppose certain presidents?

    Provide electronic access to this introductory article from C-SPAN to your students. Direct your students to answer the following questions on their graphic organizer:

    • Select a random president of your choosing that is not listed above. How did they score on the Presidential Historians Survey?
    • What categories are listed in the survey?
    • Click on Thomas Jefferson. What is his strength? What is his weakness?
    • Click on Abraham Lincoln. What is his strength? What is his weakness?
    • Click on Franklin D. Roosevelt. What is his strength? What is his weakness?
    • Click on Lyndon B. Johnson. What is his strength? What is his weakness?
    • Click on Richard M. Nixon. What is his strength? What is his weakness?

    Play this introductory video clip (3:00) for your students. Direct your students to answer the following questions on their graphic organizer:

    • According to Douglas Brinkley, what criteria are used in the C-SPAN Presidential Survey rankings?
    • How are the rankings calculated?
    • Who contributes to determining the rankings?
    • Which presidents does Brinkley mention as the “big four?”

    Direct your students to their graphic organizers to view and define the vocabulary terms that will appear in the choice board activity in the chart in their graphic organizer handout. The vocabulary words are also listed to the right on this webpage. We recommend having your students define and present the terms in a jigsaw activity to save time. Depending on time and resources, you may consider having your students define and present the terms in a Frayer's Model activity, where each student takes one-to-two words. Students can then post their models around the room for reference throughout the lesson. Note: this is not an all-encompassing list of terms included in each video. We recommend you previewing the videos to determine any necessary additions/subtractions to this list for your specific students.


    Direct students to their choice board activities and indicate that they can self-select (or the teacher can assign) two different presidents to study. The presidents, related video clips, and questions included on the choice board can be found below.

    After viewing the videos and answering the questions for three presidents, students should respond to the prompts on the final slide:

    • Which presidents did you study?
    • Which group(s) of people despised each president you studied, and why did they despise each president?
    • In your opinion, do the presidential ratings from the introduction activity align with what you learned in this choice board lesson about each president? Why or why not?
  • Clip #2: Why was Thomas Jefferson Despised? (7:02), As part of an American Historical Association virtual panel, Joanne B. Freeman (a Professor of History at Yale University) described why Thomas Jefferson was hated by some Americans.

    • For what reasons does Joanne Freeman say Thomas Jefferson was hated even before he became president?
    • Based on the clip, what did Federalists and Republicans disagree about? What event increased the Federalists’ fears?
    • Why was the election of 1800 a “turning point?” How was Jefferson viewed by his opponents at this time?
    • According to Freeman, what was the hatred of Jefferson based on? What examples does she provide?
    • How does the hatred of Jefferson shift in his second term? Why? What examples does Freeman provide?
  • Clip #3: Why was Abraham Lincoln Despised? (12:54), As part of an American Historical Association virtual panel, Manisha Sinha (a Professor of History at the University of Connecticut) described why Abraham Lincoln was hated by some Americans.

    • How was Abraham Lincoln viewed by abolitionists and by southerners? What examples does Manisha Sinha provide?
    • Within which groups did hatred of Lincoln grow at the start of the Civil War? What were their criticisms? For what did Chief Justice Roger B. Taney criticize Lincoln?
    • What does Sinha say was the “biggest blot on his presidential record?”
    • For what other actions was Lincoln “reviled?” What nearly cost him the Presidency in 1864?
    • How did the Emancipation Proclamation change the Civil War and how Lincoln was viewed? Based on the clip, how did these effects lead to his assassination?
    • What else did Lincoln’s opponents accuse him and the Republican Party of doing?
  • Clip #4: Why was Franklin D. Roosevelt Despised? (9:54), As part of an American Historical Association virtual panel, Matthew Sutton (a Professor of History at Washington State University) described why Franklin D. Roosevelt was hated by some Americans.

    • For what reason does Matthew Sutton say some Evangelicals hated President Franklin D. Roosevelt? Summarize the two perspectives Sutton describes.
    • Based on the clip, what did Evangelicals believe in the 1920s and 1930s? What was of concern to them?
    • How was Roosevelt’s 1932 presidential campaign “ominous?”
    • Why was Roosevelt seen as a “totalitarian leader” by some people? What examples does Sutton provide?
    • Based on the clip, why were the National Recovery Act, Social Security, the World Court, and the United Nations of concern to some people?
    • How were Evangelicals active in politics? Why?
  • Clip #5: Why was Lyndon B. Johnson Despised? (11:33), As part of an American Historical Association virtual panel, Sharron Wilkins Conrad (a postdoctoral fellow at the Southern Methodist University's Center for Presidential History) described why Lyndon Johnson was hated by some Americans.

    • Why were African Americans upset about President John F. Kennedy’s selection of Lyndon Johnson as his running mate in 1960?
    • According to Sharron Conrad, how was Johnson viewed differently by his colleagues and by the public during his time as vice president?
    • Based on the clip, how did Johnson try to win over African Americans? How were his efforts similar to Kennedy’s? Did these efforts work for Johnson?
    • How did the Civil Rights Movement shift in the 1960s? How did it affect Johnson?
    • Why did African Americans vote for Johnson in 1964?
    • What other factors diminished African American support for Johnson?
  • Clip #6: Why was Richard Nixon Despised? (8:25), As part of an American Historical Association virtual panel, Mark Atwood Lawrence (Director of the Johnson Presidential Library and Museum) described why Richard Nixon was hated by some Americans.

    • To what does Mark Lawrence say “antipathy” to President Richard Nixon is directed? What was Nixon’s primary concern with foreign policy?
    • Lawrence references the following quote: “Nixon is simply the modern exemplar of a dark and vindictive president.” What does this quote mean, and what examples does Lawrence provide?
    • According to the clip, why was foreign policy both a strength and weakness for Nixon? What examples are provided?
    • Summarize President Jimmy Carter’s comments about Nixon. How did Nixon “depart from honored American traditions?”
    • What was the “unfortunate outcome” of Nixon’s presidency, according to Lawrence?

    After your students are finished sharing their findings from their choice board activity with the class, direct them to complete the final culminating writing prompt: "Having now learned about why five different U.S. presidents were despised and who despised them, compare how presidents have been criticized historically and in contemporary times." Direct your students to use evidence from the video clips to support their response. You can also provide the related articles linked below to your students or allow students to conduct self-guided research to help them further support their arguments.

    Have students share their responses, comparing their perspectives with their classmates'.


    Option #1: Guide your students through C-SPAN Classroom's 2021 Tournament of President Bracketology Lesson. This lesson gives students an opportunity to evaluate the presidents using a "bracket style" competition. Students will examine individual leadership characteristics that are key to the success of the chief executive. There are many ways to adapt this lesson to fit your middle or high school classroom.

    Option #2: Have your students research the opponents of another modern president. Direct your students to compare the opposing groups, arguments, and related actions with one of the presidents they studied in this lesson.

Additional Resources


  • Anarchist
  • Antisemitism
  • Civil Rights Movement
  • Civil War
  • Desegregate
  • Détente
  • Dred Scott V. Sandford (1857)
  • Emancipation Proclamation (1863)
  • Embargo Act Of 1807
  • Evangelical
  • Federalist
  • French Revolution
  • Liberalism
  • National Industrial Recovery Act (1933)
  • New Deal
  • Partisan
  • Polarization
  • Social Security Act (1935)
  • Vietnam War
  • Watergate
  • World War Two


U.S. History


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