James Buchanan is consistently rated as the
worst President in U.S. history. Is this
By Bob Simpson (Writer)
Over the last several weeks, we’ve touched on two things:
- The worst Presidents in our country’s history and
- The Presidents that history has forgotten
Now, in most cases, the individuals we’ve discussed fall into both of those categories: terrible and forgotten. A question still remains, however, and that is “who is the very worst of the worst?”
In the last four years, the historical rankings of Presidents of the United States has started to follow a consistent pattern with regards to the worst President in American history.
Who is this unlucky man? Andrew Johnson? Warren Harding? Millard Fillmore?
Nope, but you’re awfully close.
The poor sap is none other than Pennsylvania’s own, James Buchanan, who, in the rankings by The Times in 2008, CSPAN in 2009, Siena in 2010 and USPC in 2011 have all ranked him in the low 40s.
But why? And if Buchanan is to be remembered as the worst President so far, is that really warranted?
Before I go any further, I just want to make it clear that I’m talking about this guy, a Democrat:
And not this guy, a Nazi:
Buchanan was born in a log cabin (seriously?) in Pennsylvania in 1791.
A life-long bachelor, Buchanan was engaged to a woman named Ann, to whom he seemed less than enamored. Ann broke off their engagement in 1819 and died a few weeks later of a suspected laudanum overdose. Buchanan was deeply affected by Ann’s death, though he seemed reluctant to marry her, and he vowed to never marry in his life, stating “Marry I could not, for my affections were buried in the grave.”
His political career began in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, then the US Congress from 1821 – 1831. After 1831, he decided against running for reelection and instead served as Minister to Russia. In 1834, he was elected to the Senate as a Democrat (he was previously a Federalist) and served until 1845, when he was made Secretary of State during the Polk administration.
After his tenure as Secretary of State, he served as Minister to the United Kingdom from 1853 – 1856. Because he was out of the country and, subsequently, removed from the violent political environment surrounding primarily the slave issue, Buchanan was seen as a safe nomination for the Democratic party in 1856.
Many viewed Buchanan as a “doughface,” or a Northerner with Southern sympathies, and the Democratic party saw Buchanan as a potential stopgap to the increasing likelihood of seceding states.
Two days after his inauguration, a decision was reached in the Dred Scott case, which set the tone for the next four years of Buchanan’s administration. The country had reached a boiling point, and the decision by the Chief Justice stating that Congress had no constitutional power to limit slavery in the territories infuriated Northerners.
It was all downhill from there. Disagreement over how to handle slavery in Kansas broke the Democratic party in two between those loyal to Buchanan and those loyal to Stephen Douglas. The Panic of 1857 struck, pummeling the economy. In 1858, the division between Democrats led the Republicans to their first House majority in 1858, which allowed the Republicans to block most of Buchanan’s agenda (they’re really good at that).
With all of these crises during his administration, Buchanan’s actions tended to be limited at best. He seemed almost afraid to utilize the full power of his office, but none more so than on December 20, 1860, when South Carolina seceded from the Union after the election of Buchanan’s replacement, Abraham Lincoln.
So, South Carolina has bolted from the Union. I think we can all agree that this was an action that required an immediate response from the President, yes? So, what did Buchanan do?
Let me explain. Buchanan saw South Carolina’s secession from the Union as an illegal act. However, he also saw federal intervention in South Carolina’s actions as an illegal act.
See what happened there? Basically, Buchanan saw a catastrophe unveiled before him and said, “Damned if we do, damned if we don’t.”
Nice leadership, Jimmy.
The four years of Buchanan’s administration took a heavy toll not only on Buchanan himself, but on the country. His inability to act in the face of war strengthened the Confederate caused and turned what could have been a brief series of sectional skirmishes into a long and bloody war.
On his last day as President, he told his successor, Lincoln, “If you are as happy in entering the White House as I shall feel on returning to Wheatland, you are a happy man.”
So, was Buchanan the worst? I have to say no, I don’t believe he was. Yes, his policies were ineffective and he seemed nervous about exerting authority, but he was also placed into a no-win political situation in 1856.
From my perspective, I see Buchanan as a tragic figure. From the death of his fiancé in 1819, to the death of his lifelong friend (and rumored to be more) William Rufus King, to a vibrant and active political career turned to catastrophe in 1860, Buchanan was a combination of ineffective leadership and truly awful timing.
Additional Buchanan Fun Facts:
- The only President to be elected from the state of Pennsylvania.
- The only President that was a lifelong bachelor.
- Many historians believe that Buchanan was a homosexual, based on his bachelorhood and intimate friendship with William Rufus King, who was his roommate for fifteen years.
- The last President to be born in the 18th century.
- He was an active Freemason.
- The election of 1856 saw the first Republican candidate for President, John C. Fremont of California, who was defeated by Buchanan.
is a writer and lives in Los Angeles, where he works for an
entertainment company that he'd prefer to keep anonymous, should he
accidentally diss something they made. www.bobsimpsonblog.blogspot.com
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