James Buchanan, The Worst President Ever
“History will vindicate my memory from every unjust aspersion.”
-- President James Buchanan
As President James Buchanan had predicted, history has judged him. Except, it’s not in the way he would’ve hoped. Historians, political scientists, pollsters and other scholars who rank presidents have recently placed the 15th president of the United States at the bottom of the list.
This shouldn’t come as no surprise to anyone who studies U.S. history or politics (or for grade school students who – justifiably so – have no clue who he was). His contribution was to be the only life-long bachelor president to keep the office warm until the more competent 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, took over.
So how did this seasoned politician end up with such a poor record? While the issues of slavery and states rights were flaring up during the late 1850s, he did little, if anything, to remedy the situation. On top of that, his inaction allowed for several states to break away from the union – a precursor to the bloody Civil War. Worst yet, some of his beliefs about the role of the federal government (or lack of) in such matter made this volatile situation explosive.
His Early Life
To understand how Buchanan became an unremarkable president, one has to look at his life before and after entering politics. He was born in Cove Gap, Pennsylvania on April 23, 1791 to a merchant/farmer father and a well-educated mother. Like many born to well-to-do families of the time, James was given the opportunity to acquire an education at Old Stone Academy in the village of Mercersburg (they had moved there in 1797).
Later, he moved on to Dickinson College. The transition was not smooth, however. According to Biography.com, Buchanan was “nearly suspended for bad behavior before finally graduating in 1809.”
After graduating with honors, he moved to Lancaster to study law. He’d eventually be admitted to the bar in 1812. However, that fateful year would have something else in store for him.
The War of 1812 against the British arrived. Buchanan – a member of the Federalist party of the time -- opposed the war; however, when the British invaded Maryland, he volunteered to fight. He became a member of the light dragoon unit as a private, and would serve in defense of Baltimore.
In defense of his presidency, Buchanan often stated that judiciary decisions and the constitution limited his ability to take action on the pressing issues of the time. In truth, his presidency was wrought by a series of blunders and inactivity at a contentious time in American History.
His Political Career and Personal Life
Buchanan entered politics at the tender age of 23. Fresh from war, he became a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. In 1821, he moved on from state politics to the national theater as a United States congressman. He served five consecutive terms until he was appointed as envoy to Russia by President Andrew Jackson.
In 1834, Buchanan returned to the U.S. and won a seat in the Senate. This time, the life-long Federalist was now a Democrat. He’d hold this position until 1845 when another president, James K. Polk, made him secretary of state.
Emboldened by his appointments by two presidents, Buchanan made his first attempt at the office in 1852. He lost to Franklin Pierce. The new president appointed him minister to England.
Up to this point, Buchanan was on the road to bigger and greater things. That would eventually happen in 1856. However, the ride to the top was wrought with pitfalls that not only put road blocks to his presidency, but exposed him for the person he really was. It would also be a precursor for his presidency.
During his rise to the top, Buchanan’s political posture and personal life started to come into focus. There were times where those within his own party had suspicions or doubts about his abilities as a leader.
Part of the reason had to do with his bachelorhood. At one time in his life, Buchanan was engaged; however, the courtship was wrought with controversy from the start. There were rumors of infidelity, ulterior motive of marrying for money, and the possibility he was hiding his sexual preference. His fiancé broke off the engagement and died soon after. Whether Buchanan was heart-broken or desired celibacy, he remained a bachelor his entire life.
Another problem to surface was his passive nature. Buchanan was not an aggressive leader, as described by those that worked with him. This would haunt his presidency more than anything else.
Missteps and Passiveness
"Mr. Buchanan is an able man, but is in small matter without judgment and sometimes acts like an old maid."
-- James K. Polk, President.
James Polk made this observation when Buchanan was part of his administration. In many respects, the comments best reflects the Buchanan's failings.
In defense of his presidency, Buchanan often stated that judiciary decisions and the constitution limited his ability to take action on the pressing issues of the time. In truth, his presidency was wrought by a series of blunders and inactivity at a contentious time in American History. Also, his belief that states rights were more important than federal laws led to numerous conflicts with the House and Senate, as well as members of the Republican party and factions within the Democratic party.
His problems started early during his inauguration. In his speech he believed the problematic question of slavery in the territories will be “happily, a matter of but little practical importance.” He believed – correctly – that the U.S. Supreme Court was about the settle the matter “speedily and finally,” with a decision on the Dred Scott case. He also proclaimed that the decision would “cheerfully submit whatever this may be.”
Two days later, the court made its decision. The Dred Scott Decision – as it has become to be known – asserted that the federal government (Congress in particular) had no constitutional power to forbid slavery in territories. And, with this decision, Buchanan cheerfully submitted to opening territories such as Kansas to slavery.
In his last State of the Union address, Buchanan mentioned that the breakaway states had no legal right to secede from the federal government, but the federal government had no right to prevent them from doing so
As mentioned, Buchanan was a firm believer in states rights. He believed that states should decide if they wanted slavery or not. As expected, Southerners support him while the Northerners began to revile him.
His push to settle the Kansas crisis (known as Bleeding Kansas) led to another blunder when he supported a failed cause. Since 1854, the Kansas territory had been divided by Free-Soil (anti-slavery) and pro-slavery settlers. Emboldened by the Dred Scot Decision, Buchanan sided with the pro-slavery settlers who had set up their own capital in the town of Lecompton. This group devised a state constitution, and was accepted by Buchanan’s administration.
The problem, however, was that most of the settlers were Free-Soilers. They boycotted it. And, despite passing the House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate rejected it. This included Northern members of his political party..
Slavery and state rights weren't only issues he had misfires. He had a misstep when he vetoed two important bills that would have helped a young country expand westward and support education and infrastructure (this bills, the Homestead Act and the Morrell Act would later be signed by Lincoln and become known as two of the most important bills signed during this era).
Also, Buchanan had to deal with the Panic of 1857, in which the country went into recession. The mounting problems continued and eventually led to his own party rejecting his nomination for a second term.
Buchanan had a chance to improve the stormy situation in the country during his lame-duck session. However, true to his form, Buchanan chose to do little. As a result, secession became a reality.
At best, he dismissed several Confederate sympathizers from his administration; however, he also lost support of some of his other cabinet members that sided with the North. They resigned, as well.
In his last State of the Union address, Buchanan mentioned that the breakaway states had no legal right to secede from the federal government, but the federal government had no right to prevent them from doing so (Biography.Com). Soon afterward, South Carolina left the union in 1860 (mostly in response to Lincoln becoming the new president). Soon, six states left and formed the Confederate States of America before Buchanan’s last day in office.
"If you are as happy in entering the White House as I shall feel on returning to Wheatland, you are a happy man.”
-- President Buchanan addressing Lincoln on the final day of his presidency, March 4, 1861.
Buchanan left office in disgrace. He would be blamed for setting the stage for the Civil War. As a result of these accusations, he became ill and depressed. Eventually, after retiring to Lancaster he tried to defend his record, but failed to convince most people.
Eventually, he wrote a memoir that was largely ignored by the public. At the age of 77 in 1868, Buchanan caught a cold that would eventually become a serious respiratory disease. He would succumb to it on June 1st.
Since his presidency ended more than 150 years ago, Buchanan has been all but forgotten by the general public. He has been consistently ranked at or near the bottom of all the U.S. presidents.
Still, this relatively ineffective president managed to get some recognition. The Buchanan Memorial was dedicated in Washington D.C. in 1911 and completed in 1930. The Bronze and granite structure contains the following quote from, Jeremiah S. Black, a cabinet member of his administration:
“The incorruptible statesman whose walk was upon the mountain ranges of the law.”
Then again, his memorial is in the same town as Lincoln's, which is by far, one of the most visited places in the nation's capital. Even in death, Lincoln casts a shadow over Buchanan.
Fun Facts about Buchanan
- James Buchanan is the only president with a military record to never become an officer.
- He helped defend Baltimore during the War of 1812. This theater of operation saw the bombardment of Ft. Mc Henry. This particular battle was witnessed by Francis Scot Key who would immortalize it in his poem “The Star-Spangled Banner”.
- Buchanan was the only president to be born in Pennsylvania.
- He was the only bachelor president to hold the office. His niece (who he adopted) served the role of first lady.
- There are rumors (some credible) that Buchanan may have been gay. He was known to share his residency with Rufus King, the vice president to Franklin Pierce. It was not unusual for two men to live in the same home or apartment and to share a bed during this time. However, both men were often described as being inseparable until King's death.
- Andrew Jackson used to refer to Buchanan and King as "Miss Nancy" and "Aunt Fancy". These were euphemisms for effeminate men during the 19th century.
- In 1819, Buchanan was engaged to Anne Caroline Coleman. The engagement was plagued by rumors that he was a womanizer. This included a secret relationship with James Polk’s widow. Eventually, Coleman broke off the engagement and died soon after.
- After leaving office, Buchanan wrote his memoir (1868) in which he blamed abolitionists and Republicans for the Civil War. .
- Many blamed Buchanan for the Civil War. In fact, some referred to the war as “Buchanan’s War.”
- The first time Confederates fired upon Fort Sumter happened during Buchanan’s administration, but it didn’t result in war. Confederate artillery opened on a civilian ship (Star of the West) that was believed to be carrying supplies to Union troops still stationed at the fort. This event exposed a secret pact Buchanan had with the Confederates; he promised not to arm the fort. The appearance of the ship was an indication he broke that. Thus, people in the south lost trust in him. The North didn’t look at him too kindly, either. He didn’t retaliate.
- The federal government and Mormons in Utah nearly went into full-scale war in 1857. In a complicated matter, Buchanan attempted to replace Brigham Young as governor with the non-Mormon Alfred Cummings. The move was based on unsubstantiated reports that the Mormon settlers were rejecting federal rules. The matter was further complicated when the notice to replace the governor didn’t reach Young due to the removal of a mail contract with the territory during the Pierce administration. Although there was a two-week long retaliation by Young that led to destruction of wagons trains, oxen and Army Property, the matter (known as the Utah War) was settled peacefully.
Facts on Presidents
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2014 Dean Traylor