© 2004 Presidential Leadership
Chapter 15: JAMES BUCHANAN
SURVEY RANKING: 39
BORN: April 23, 1791, Mercersburg, Pennsylvania
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
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
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
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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