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2004 Presidential Leadership


BORN: April 23, 1791, Mercersburg, Pennsylvania

WIFE: None

RELIGION: Presbyterian

PARTY: Democrat

MILITARY EXPERIENCE: Pennsylvania militia (private)

OTHER OFFICES HELD: Pennsylvania state representative (1814-15), U.S. representative (1821-31), U.S. senator (1834-45), U.S. secretary of state (1845-49)

TOOK OFFICE: March 4, 1857

VICE PRESIDENT: John Breckenridge

LEFT OFFICE: March 4, 1861

DIED: June 1, 1868

BURIED: Lancaster, Pennsylvania

by Christopher Buckley

It's probably just as well that James Buchanan was our only bachelor president. There are no descendants bracing every morning on opening the paper to find another headline announcing: "Buchanan Once Again Rated Worst President in History."

Their only consolation is that political scientists occasionally tire of ranking him last and, just for the heck of it, bump him up to next-to-worst president, with Warren Harding (temporarily) assuming the bottom slot on the greasy pole. But then what can one hope for, of an executive whose most famous utterance was to his successor on the day he handed over the reins of the fractured nation: "My dear sir, if you are as happy on entering the White House as I am on leaving, you are a very happy man indeed"? And how would you like to be followed by Abraham Lincoln, number one or two on the top ten list of great presidents?

Considering Buchanan's curriculum vitae leads one to ask, What, oh what, went wrong? His achievements and honors positively shimmer. He was an excellent lawyer pulling down $11,000 a year, no small sum in the 1820s. He was elected to the Pennsylvania legislature, then to the U.S. House. He was elected chairman of the Judiciary Committee, appointed minister to Russia (by President Andrew Jackson, in order to keep him from running for vice president), elected to the U.S. Senate and reelected twice, appointed secretary of state, appointed minister to Britain. James Buchanan was a résumé god, a nineteenth-century George H. W. Bush. If only he'd stopped there. But whom the gods would make worst president in U.S. history, first they convince to run for the White House.

An essay on Buchanan by the historian Jean Harvey Baker in a collection entitled -- ironically, in his instance -- To the Best of My Ability contains the following phrases: "ill suited...undermined his pledge...advice of cronies...inflammatory position...improperly intervened...infuriating...limited himself...passed over for renomination...schism in the party...vacillating...rudderless...bungled...presidential failure...erratic trimmer...twisted...stubbornly...deaf ear...feckless...exculpatory vehemence."

The Greatness That Was the Buchanan Era included Dred Scott, the economic panic of 1857, secession, and Fort Sumter. You have to look hard to find four more dismal nodes in American history. Open the Buchanan file to any random page and you'll find such accolades as: "never regarded as a brilliant speaker," "neither a brilliant nor visionary thinker," and even "expelled from college." The one woman about whom he was serious was the daughter of Pennsylvania's leading ironmaster, who, by the way, didn't like Buchanan and tried to break up the courtship. After he fumbled the romance, she committed suicide. Later on, there were rumors that his persistent bachelorhood was owing to an abiding Uranian affection for Alabama senator -- and, briefly, vice president under Franklin Pierce -- William Rufus King.

On the plus side, Buchanan was known for a sense of humor, though alas this "seldom showed itself in his public statements" (Pennsylvania Historical Museum Commission). Well, let's not pile on. The record shows that he was "distinguished looking." And he was. In photographs, he looks out at us with a becoming, diffident sense of his own handsomeness, head tilted forward and to the left. This was not a pose. He was farsighted in one eye and nearsighted in the other. Historians have remarked on this ophthalmic peculiarity as emblematic of his karma: Some things he saw clearly up close; the big picture was -- well, a bit blurry.

Buchanan saw the major issue of his day -- slavery -- both ways, as (a) evil, but (b) a state issue. Buchanan's 1856 platform was premised on the idea that the Compromise of 1850 ought to stand, and that Congress had no constitutional mandate to intervene in the matter of slavery. It was a principled, lawyerly view. The only problem with it was that it was (a) wrong and (b) ultimately dividing. While Buchanan dithered and finessed and tried to have it both ways, a senatorial candidate named Lincoln was out on the hustings famously declaring that a house divided against itself could not stand. Tempting as it is to blame Buchanan the lawyer for his nearsightedness on the issue, Lincoln was also a member of the bar.

He was consistent. As early as 1826, thirty years before becoming president, he was parsing away: "I believe [slavery] to be a great political and great moral evil. I thank God, my lot has been cast in a State where it does not exist. But, while I entertain these opinions, I know it is an evil at present without a remedy...one of those moral evils, from which it is impossible for us to escape, without the introduction of evils infinitely greater. There are portions of this Union, in which, if you emancipate our slaves, they will become masters. There can be no middle course." Boldly put, sir!

The Buchanan treasury of quotations, such as it is, is marked by an on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand evenhandedness that leaves him with sores from straddling the fence:

"It is better to bear the ills we have than to fly to others we know not of."

"What is right and what is practicable are two different things."

"Liberty must be allowed to work out its natural results; and these will, ere long, astonish the world."

"All that is necessary to [abolish slavery], and all for which the slave States have ever contended, is to be let alone and permitted to manage their domestic institutions in their own way."

In 1854, two years before assuming the Mantle of Ungreatness, he championed the Ostend Manifesto. (You may remember it as a trick question on your last American History final exam.) In Ostend, Belgium, he declared that the United States had the right to purchase Cuba, or to annex it by force if necessary. Well, that's certainly bold. But this had less to do with Manifest Destiny -- which the expansionist Buchanan resolutely favored -- than with giving the South another slave state. It's hard not to level the charge of appeasement against Buchanan.

He tried to win by splitting the difference. In the end, it came to naught, as appeasements invariably do. In January 1861, the ship he had dispatched to resupply Fort Sumter was fired on and forced to withdraw. One month later, the Confederacy was officially inaugurated in Montgomery, Alabama.

He was passed over by his own party for renomination. (Four years before, he had carried only 45 percent of the popular vote in a three-way race.) There was, at least, a happy by-product to his failure: The schism he created within his own party ultimately assured the election of the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln. Soon Buchanan was on his way to the Capitol in a carriage with his successor, telling Abe how relieved he was to be rid of the job.

He retired to Wheatland, his estate in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he died in 1868. Though domestically tranquil, his remaining years could not have been happy. He was blamed for the Civil War. Vandals kept defacing his portrait in the U.S. Capitol, requiring it to be removed for safekeeping. (That must have hurt.) Posters calling him "Judas" were plastered on walls.

He finally did what most Democratic ex-presidents do -- write a book blaming everything on the Republicans. It was not a best-seller. One of his last pronouncements upon himself has a sad quality to it. "Whatever the result may be," he said, "I shall carry to my grave the consciousness that I at least meant well for my country."

"At least he meant well" isn't quite up there with, say, Edwin Stanton's pronouncement at the deathbed of Lincoln: "Now he belongs to the ages."

Yet let's cut the poor guy some posthumous slack and grant him the benefit of the doubt that he did, at least, mean well. Perhaps historians, the next time they convene to decide who was the absolute worst president ever, will also factor in his good intentions and move him up two notches so that his ghost can experience the giddy feeling of looking down -- if only temporarily -- on Warren Harding and Franklin Pierce.

Mr. Buckley is editor of Forbes FYI and author, most recently, of Washington Schlepped Here (Crown, 2003).

Copyright 2004 by Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

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