James Monroe by Gary Hart

President #5, C-SPAN Historians Ranking #14

What’s So Bad About Feeling Good?

jamesmonroe

James Monroe was the last of a series of three Virginia presidents, following Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. And, since he didn’t write the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, Monroe is remembered mainly for his eponymous foreign policy doctrine. And, some people think that John Quincy Adams wrote that. But, former Senator Gary Hart does his best to stick up for James Monroe, whom he describes as the first “national security president.”

Hart devotes most of this biography of Monroe to his foreign policy efforts. The Panic of 1819, America’s first recession borne out of business cycles is glossed over. The Missouri Compromise is discussed mainly to show how little Monroe had to do with it. The fact that Monroe faced only token opposition in his run for the Presidency in 1816 and then none at all in 1820 gets a page.

But, it is Monroe’s ability to establish one of the cornerstones of American foreign policy that Hart concentrates on. Monroe, who suffered through some unfortunate experiences as a diplomat in Europe, ended up being one of the most effective Presidents in dealing with Europe and preserving the security of the nation.

James Monroe was born on April 28, 1758 in Westmoreland County, Virginia. When he was a 17-year old student at William and Mary, Monroe and a group of older students, after hearing about the battles of Lexington and Concord, led a raid on an armory. The weapons they took would be used to form a regiment in the Virginia Militia.

When he was just 18, Monroe accompanied George Washington’s troops for their fateful crossing of the Delaware. Monroe would fight in the Battle of Trenton. In 1851, artist Emmanuel Leutze would insert Monroe into his painting Washington Crossing the Delaware. (He is the man holding the flag.)

In 1780, Virginia governor Thomas Jefferson asked Monroe to come back home to help with the militia there. Jefferson also tutored Monroe in law, seeing Monroe as a future political leader.

In 1782, Monroe was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates. One year later, Monroe was elected to the Confederation Congress. However, Monroe was not asked to participate in the Constitutional Convention in 1787.

Monroe originally opposed the Constitution, but made his peace with it. He ran for a seat in the House in the 1st Congress, but he lost to Madison. (This is the only time two future Presidents ever ran against each other for a seat in Congress.)

In 1790, Monroe won a seat in the Senate. It’s hard to judge Monroe’s Senate career since all activities of the Senate during his term (1790-1794) were not made public. Monroe was known to be an advocate of opening the Senate’s business to the public as the House was. However, this would not happen until after Monroe left office.

In 1794, President George Washington found himself in need of a new Minister to France. The Revolutionary Government of France had asked for the old Minister, Gouverneur Morris, to be recalled as they felt he was too pro-British.

Washington turned to Monroe, who was both sympathetic to the French Revolution, but also somewhat levelheaded. Washington was not afraid (at this time) to appoint people to high office even if they were opposed to his policies.

Monroe’s service in France didn’t go well. Washington’s administration remained strongly pro-British. Chief Justice John Jay had been dispatched to London to negotiate a treaty to alleviate tensions between Britain and the U.S. Monroe assured the French that they had nothing to fear from the treaty. Monroe believed that the U.S. would still back the terms of the Alliance signed back in 1777.

But, Jay was not forthcoming to Monroe about what he intended to negotiate. The treaty ended up being pro-British. The French, naturally, hated it. Monroe ended up looking foolish. In 1796, Washington recalled Monroe.

Monroe returned home, but wasn’t out of public life for too long. He was elected Governor of Virginia in 1799 and served for three years. In 1803, President Jefferson asked Monroe to go overseas again.

The first job for Monroe would be to assist Robert Livingston in negotiations with Napoleon for the purchase of New Orleans. Monroe had long made free navigation of the rivers of the West one of his pet projects and was eager to help.

When Monroe joined Livingston in Paris, he soon found out that Napoleon just didn’t want to sell New Orleans. He wanted to sell the whole Louisiana Territory. This turned out to be a deal that Monroe, Livingston, and Jefferson couldn’t refuse. The Louisiana Purchase added over 800,000 square miles of territory to the U.S. for just $15 million. (That’s about $ 200 million in today’s dollars.) Even better, Monroe decided not to buy the extended warranty that Napoleon was offering on the deal. He might have gone for rust proofing, but Livingston told Monroe to walk away.

After concluding this business, Jefferson sent Monroe to London to serve as the U.S. Minister there. (The U.S. didn’t use the title of ambassador until the late 19th Century.) Monroe’s tenure in London often brought him in conflict with Jefferson.

Monroe negotiated a commercial treaty with the British that he thought would relieve the tensions between the two nations. However, Jefferson rejected the treaty because it did not contain any prohibitions against the impressments of sailors, which was the hot button issue of the day.

When Monroe came home, he was elected Governor of Virginia again in 1811, but he resigned that post to serve as Secretary of State for President Madison. Monroe also served as interim Secretary of War. And, then just as Secretary of State. And then both offices again.

During the War of 1812, Monroe visited soldiers on the front lines in Baltimore, and did some scouting of his own. Monroe is likely the only serving Secretary of State to ever actively participate in a military action.

When Madison’s left the White House (or what was left it after the British burning Washington in 1814) in 1817, Monroe took over. Monroe faced very little opposition from the Federalist Party, which was nearing extinction. Monroe won 183 electoral votes to just 34 for Rufus King.

Monroe, although he was a Republican (now Democrat) and learned from Jefferson and Madison, governed in a much different style. In many respects, Monroe was a “New Republican” similar to Bill Clinton being a “New Democrat.”

Jefferson and Madison feared standing armies. Monroe thought a standing army was vital to the security of the nation. Jefferson feared a central bank, and Madison only grudgingly approved a new one. Monroe embraced the idea of a central bank. Monroe did veto a bill that would have allowed the Federal government to collect tolls on the interstate Cumberland Road.  (It would be the only veto by Monroe in his eight years in office.)

Monroe’s background as a soldier in the Revolutionary War gave him a much different perspective on the United States than Jefferson and Madison had. Soon after taking office, Monroe toured the country. This was partly to increase his visibility and partly to drum up support for increased military spending.

While on this tour, Andrew Jackson, ostensibly defending Georgia against pirates, ended up occupying parts of Florida. Jackson also executed two British subjects and he and his troops killed thousands of Indians.  Jackson managed to upset the Spanish, British, and a good chunk of the American population. However, Jackson’s occupation of Florida eventually led to diplomatic negotiations with Spain and the eventual purchase of Florida in the Adams-Onis Treaty.

Even though the America economy went into a deep recession in 1819, Monroe faced no opposition when he ran for reelection in 1820. The Federalist Party had few good ideas left and the Republicans co-opted those. No opposition party had yet formed. This caused this era to be called “The Era of Good Feelings.”

Monroe received all but one electoral vote in 1820. A New Hampshire elector named William Plumer voted for John Quincy Adams. Plumer felt that Monroe was not as smart as Adams (which was likely true), and he also wanted to preserve Washington’s distinction for being the only President to be unanimously selected. John Adams, an elector from Massachusetts, didn’t even vote for his own son.

During his second term, Monroe encountered more foreign policy challenges. The South American countries were winning their independence from Spain. Congressional leaders such as Henry Clay demanded that Monroe extend diplomatic recognition immediately. (Clay didn’t dislike Monroe; he just thought he was a nonentity.)

However, Monroe had to wait for Spain to complete its ratification of the treaty on Florida. Once this was accomplished, Monroe extended diplomatic recognition to new countries like Argentina and Colombia. But, this led to another issue.

Russia was refusing to accept any diplomatic representatives from the South American countries. This was because Russia, along with Prussia and Austria, had formed something called The Holy Alliance. These three nations had ideas on recolonizing the South American nations and giving them back to Spain. Or perhaps keeping them for themselves.

For Monroe, this was unacceptable. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams entered into discussions with British Foreign Minister George Canning to come up with a solution.

Canning said the British would be willing to go along with an American proposal to declare that the Western Hemisphere was off limits for further colonization. Adams relayed the information to Monroe, who decided to include language outlining this in his Annual Message to Congress in December of 1823.

In his message, Monroe issued this famous statement:

In the discussions to which this interest has given rise and in the arrangements by which they may terminate the occasion has been judged proper for asserting, as a principle in which the rights and interests of the United States are involved, that the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers. . .

Hart spends a whole chapter giving Monroe credit for “The Monroe Doctrine.” Many historians have said it was mostly the work of Adams. British historians tend to give credit to Canning. But, Hart asserts, Monroe was the one who drafted the language. And, it was Monroe’s idea just as much as it was Adams.

In addition to the language about the Western Hemisphere, Monroe included statements indicating that the United States would stay out of any European issues. This part of the Monroe Doctrine would later sound quaint as history showed us.

Adams benefits from leaving voluminous notes behind of his work as Secretary of State (and just about everything else). Monroe was not the most organized of men. Also, he was not as learned as Adams, so it is natural to think that the Harvard grad was the actual author instead of the William and Mary dropout.

Originally, the Monroe Doctrine was called “The Principles of 1823.” But, as time went on, Monroe ended up with the writing credit. The net effect of this was to make the question on your history test in high school to be “When was the Monroe Doctrine written?” rather than “Who wrote the Principles of 1823?”

“The Era of Good Feelings” didn’t last until the next election in 1824, when Monroe’s successor would be chosen. The country was starting to divide itself over the issue of slavery. The Missouri Compromise, signed by Monroe in 1820, admitted Missouri into the Union as a slave state, Maine as a free state, and then prohibited slavery north of 36 degrees, 30 minutes. Monroe had little to do with the passage of the Missouri Compromise, although he feared that it was a sign that the country would eventually be torn apart by the issue of slavery.

Adams prevailed in the turbulent 1824 election. This turned out to be very bad for Monroe’s retirement plans, according to Hart.

During his diplomatic tours in Europe, Monroe had borrowed against much of his landholdings to pay his expenses. Monroe expected to be reimbursed when he returned to the U.S. But, Congress never got around to paying Monroe. Then, Monroe decided not to pursue the matter while he was serving in Madison’s Cabinet or as President.

Once out of office, Monroe realized that he was going to be desperately short of money. He sent reams of papers to Congress asking to be reimbursed and even asked Jefferson and Madison to intervene for him. However, Monroe’s expense account payments got caught in politics. Andrew Jackson’s supporters, upset over Monroe failing to back him in the 1824 election, blocked any action on the matter.

Monroe had to sell his home in Virginia and move in with a daughter in New York City. He had to accept private charity. He died, mostly forgotten just six years after leaving the White House, on July 4, 1831.

James Monroe may only be remembered for one foreign policy statement he made in 1823. But, Monroe, in the view of Hart, was crucial in bringing America along from its adolescence to young adulthood. In many ways, he was the right man for the era. He wasn’t Thomas Jefferson or James Madison. But, Monroe didn’t need to be like those two men. His Presidency may not have been memorable, but it certainly wasn’t a bad time for the country.

Other stuff: Monroe was originally buried in the New York Marble Cemetery, but was later reinterred at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. John Tyler is also buried there. A grandson of Alexander Hamilton, Laurens Hamilton, died after falling overboard on the ship that was carrying Monroe’s body from New York to Richmond.

The James Monroe Foundation has tried building a museum around Monroe’s birthplace, but it still appears to be in the planning stages. You can visit one of James Monroe’s homes, Ash Lawn-Highland, in Charlottesville, Virginia. It is run by William and Mary University.

I took the SATs at James Monroe High in North Hills, California. The school newspaper is called “The Doctrine.” The sports teams are, naturally, the Vikings.

Monroe’s Vice President, Daniel Tompkins, served two full terms for him. No other Vice President would serve two full terms for the same President until Thomas Marshall did so for Woodrow Wilson from 1913-1921. Tompkins died three months after leaving office, most likely from the effects of alcoholism.

And yes, I’m on vacation. I wrote this before I left and scheduled it to appear later.

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The Survivor, Bill Clinton in the White House by John F. Harris

President #42, C-SPAN Historians ranking #15

It is what it is if you ask me

clintonsurvivorI wasn’t overly excited about reading a book about Bill Clinton for many reasons.

First, people who read this blog already know Bill Clinton. It’s not like I can find anything new or interesting to say that hasn’t already been said.

Second, I’ve never found Bill Clinton all that interesting. It’s similar to the way I feel about people who want to go on vacation to San Diego. I tell those people, “In theory, San Diego should be interesting, but it isn’t.”

Third, it was hard to find anything resembling an impartial biography of Bill Clinton.  (When it comes to partisanship, Bill Clinton brings out in everybody it seems.) The book I picked was written by a Washington Post national reporter, who covered the White House for nearly all eight years of Clinton’s Administration. And while the book is well written, it is not really a biography. It’s more a story of how a guy from Arkansas tried to fit in with the Washington establishment.

Harris devotes over 400 pages to the ins and outs of the eight years of the Clinton White House. But Harris isn’t analyzing Clinton’s place in history, but mainly recounting how the seemingly unending series of crises unfolded. Very little time is spent on Clinton’s life prior to assuming the Presidency, even though those years would prove to be very important to what happened during the eight years in the White House.

Bill Clinton was born William Jefferson Blythe III on August 19, 1946 in Hope, Arkansas. And as most of us know from hearing or reading about his life story, Clinton’s father, William Blythe Jr., died before he was born in an automobile accident. His mother, Virginia, would later marry a man named Roger Clinton, and young Bill would assume that last name. (Clinton and Gerald Ford are the only two Presidents who have changed surnames during their life. Gerald Ford was born Leslie King.) Roger Clinton was an alcoholic and prone to violence, and young Bill was eager to get away.

Fortunately, Bill Clinton was an excellent student. He was able to gain entrance to Georgetown University, and then a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford. Upon his return from England, Clinton entered Yale Law School, where he eventually met his future wife, Hillary Rodham.

Clinton would move back to Arkansas and get elected Attorney General at the age of 30. Two years later, he was elected Governor. Two years after that, Clinton lost his bid for re-election. Two years after that, Clinton figured out how to stay elected, winning four more elections. (In 1984, the term of office was extended to four years. Subsequently, Arkansas has limited its governors to two terms.)

Some thought Clinton would run for President in 1988, but he decided against it. Instead, he opted to give the nominating speech for Michael Dukakis. There went two hours of my life I wanted back.

In 1991, Clinton decided to run against incumbent George H.W. Bush. Clinton was the leader of the wing of the Democratic Party referred to as “New Democrats.” This wing, which preferred the term Democratic Leadership Council, was supposed to bring the Democratic Party closer to the center.

Clinton weathered a campaign marked by accusations of marital infidelities and questions over the fitness of the governor of a small state to run the United States. H. Ross Perot mounted a spirited third party campaign.

Perot was able to siphon enough votes away from Bush to allow Clinton to win the election comfortably. However, Clinton ended up with just 43% of the popular vote. Many of his opponents would remind him that 57% of the voters wanted someone else to be President.

Unfortunately for Clinton, he didn’t seem to get the message that he didn’t have deep support. His administration hit the ground stumbling. There were tussles over gays in the military, his Attorney General nominee (Zoe Baird, who withdrew after a disclosure that she had employed an illegal alien as a nanny), replacing the staff in the White House Travel Office, and also making other planes wait for him at LAX while he was getting a haircut. Deputy White House counsel Vince Foster committed suicide, either from the stress of the job or severe depression. (Or some combination of the two. Or he was murdered. Take your pick.)

Amidst all this, Clinton tried to get his economic plan passed by Congress. Since it contained some new taxes, Republicans refused to support it. The plan passed narrowly in the House on party lines, and it only passed in the Senate because Vice President Al Gore was available to break a tie.

Clinton also promised to reform health care. Hillary Clinton was put in charge of the project. Clinton demanded that any plan guarantee universal health care. The plan came out of the project supposedly did that, but it ran into fierce opposition from just about everyone. And that included “Harry and Louise.”

The health care plan got nowhere. Much of what Clinton tried to do in his first two years in office went nowhere. His foreign policy initiative in Bosnia went nowhere. Clinton was helpless in the face of a genocide in Rwanda. U.S. troops tried to intervene in Somalia, but suffered some horrific losses.

Unsurprisingly, in the midterm elections, the Democrats were massacred. They lost control of both houses of Congress. Bill Clinton would now face another nemesis, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.

At this time, Clinton made a fateful change in strategy. He called an old adviser, Dick Morris, for assistance. Clinton kept this secret from nearly everyone on his staff. Most Democrats disliked Morris. That was because Morris usually worked for Republican candidates. But Clinton had a strange kinship with Morris and trusted him.

Morris was able to get Clinton to shift his policies rightward. Clinton signed a welfare reform bill that appalled many Democrats, but it proved to be hugely important in presenting Clinton to the public as a leader who could get things done.

In 1995, the Republicans tried to get Clinton to agree to their budget deficit reduction plan by threatening to shut down the government. Clinton called the bluff of the Republicans. Clinton bet that while people didn’t like the Federal Government in the abstract, they liked individual things that the Government did. People liked their Social Security checks and weather forecasts. The Republicans ended up backing down and compromised on a budget reduction plan.

All the while, a new scandal was brewing. It was called Whitewater. I believe five people fully understand what the Whitewater scandal truly was about.  It involved the Clintons and their involvement in a failed real estate development called Whitewater back in Arkansas.  There were bribes, embezzlement, and some connection to the Savings and Loan Crisis of the late 1980s. Clinton appointed a special prosecutor to look into the matter, feeling that it would be the best way to clear his name.  Originally, this special prosecutor was Robert Fiske, but he would later be replaced by Kenneth Starr. This investigation would take several years, and turn into something much different. (Ultimately, Clinton would not be found guilty of any one particular crime directly connected to Whitewater.)

Clinton faced off against Kansas senator Bob Dole in 1996 and it wasn’t much of a contest. Clinton won despite having to cut ties with Morris before the election after it had been discovered that Morris was letting a prostitute listen in on phone conversations he had with Clinton. Perot ran again and he won enough votes to keep Clinton below 50%.

In his second term, Clinton first faced a crisis over his acceptance of campaign contributions from foreign nationals, which is prohibited by Federal law. Some believed that the contributions, mostly from China, were compromising the security of the nation. However, this dust-up seemed to fade away with little effect on Clinton.

But, the Whitewater investigation was starting to take a turn for the worse for Clinton.

One of the many problems Clinton faced was a civil suit for sexual harassment by an Arkansas woman named Paula Jones. (This was also known as Troopergate.) Clinton’s attorneys offered to settle the case for $750,000. Jones’ attorneys thought “Hey, that’s a good deal.” But, Jones turned down the offer. So, her attorneys quit the case. A conservative legal group called the Rutherford Institute took over the case. And, they knew stuff.

In particular, Jones’ new attorneys knew that Clinton had been carrying on a sexual affair with a White House intern named Monica Lewinsky. Clinton was called in to give a deposition about his relationship with Lewinsky. Clinton, in very legalistic terms, denied the affair. He also denied helping Lewinsky find a job outside the White House.

The problem with this was that: 1) Clinton had had a sexual affair with Lewinsky and 2) he had helped (through his friend Vernon Jordan) Lewinsky find another job. Clinton also had coached his secretary, Bettie Currie, into saying that Lewinsky was just coming to the Oval Office to visit her, not the President.

Kenneth Starr was now aware of this evidence. A White House staffer named Linda Tripp had provided evidence, in the form of a semen-stained dress, that the President had had sex with Lewinsky. Starr viewed Clinton’s earlier testimony as perjury. Skipping ahead, this charge of perjury went to Congress. The Republicans, out for blood, decided that this was an impeachable offense. The House voted in favor of two articles of impeachment (perjury and obstruction of justice), which passed mostly along on party lines. But, to convict Clinton, the Republicans would have to get a 2/3 vote in the Senate. The votes weren’t close, 50-50 for perjury, and 55-45 against on the obstruction of justice charge. (Jones’ case was dismissed, but Clinton did pay her a settlement.)

With the impeachment crisis over, Clinton was able to have a productive final two years in office. Clinton spent much of his time concentrating on foreign affairs, dealing with Kosovo, Northern Ireland, and the West Bank. Clinton also discovered that America had an enemy by the name of Osama bin Laden. (And at this point, you can decide for yourself if you think Clinton did enough to stop bin Laden.)

Clinton hoped that Gore would succeed him in the White House, but was disappointed that the Vice President never asked him to campaign for him. Gore would later tell Clinton that he had to distance himself from the sex scandals. Clinton told Gore that if he ran on Clinton’s record, he would have won. Of course, Gore sort of won. Except he didn’t win the votes in the right places, so he lost.

Amidst all this, you might ask, (I certainly did), what did Bill Clinton do that made him so popular? Beats me. OK, maybe I have some ideas.

It did help that the economy grew during Clinton’s eight years in office. Clinton also managed to tame the budget deficit and left office with a $559 billion surplus. (You can argue amongst yourselves if there really was a surplus or if it was just accounting chicanery.)

It’s hard not to like a President when things are going well. As one of Clinton’s campaign advisers, James Carville, said during the 1992 campaign, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Or is it a stupid economy?

Would I recommend Baker’s book? To be honest, no I wouldn’t. But I’m also a guy who doesn’t like to visit San Diego. It’s just not my thing.

Other stuff: In case you didn’t know, Bill Clinton’s wife, Hillary, was a United States Senator from New York. And she almost became President. But now she’s the Secretary of State. Just checking to see if you’re paying attention.

The William J. Clinton Presidential Library is in Little Rock, Arkansas.

If you saw this on your RSS feed earlier, that was a mishap on my part. I was hurrying to get this done and clicked “publish” too early. I likely have a lot of typos. I will try to fix them as I go along. I beg your indulgence. This was just not a post I enjoyed writing much. Sorry, I’ll try to do better with the next one. But that won’t be for a few more weeks as I’m going on vacation soon. And not to San Diego.

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James Buchanan by Jean Baker

President #15, C-SPAN Historians Ranking #42

You know my successor and I average a ranking of 21.5!

jamesbuchananAs I careen through the roster of American presidents, I knew that eventually I would hit bottom. There had to be someone whom historians considered to be THE WORST President ever. Historian Jean H. Baker of Goucher College lays out the case for why James Buchanan is as bad as they get. And it’s not a pretty sight.

Baker not only believes that Buchanan was just guilty of violating his oath of office by failing to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. She also believes that he may have committed treason against the United States.

Why did America’s only bachelor (and the only Pennsylvanian) President end up as such a colossal failure? Was Buchanan incompetent? Was he in over his head? According to Baker, Buchanan’s main sin was that he was so pro-Southern and pro-slavery that he would do whatever it took to appease that section of the Democratic Party. Buchanan said he believed in the Constitution; but, he only believed in his very narrow interpretation of it. Buchanan would rather have been right, than to have done right.

But, even more than Buchanan’s belief that he was right, his biggest problem, according to Baker, was his pro-Southern attitude. Buchanan may have grown up in Pennsylvania, but his closest friends and advisers were Southerners. He also believed that slavery was an institution that the Federal government had a duty to protect. His ideas on how to patch up the deepening sectional divide over the expansion of slavery served only to make matters worse.

Baker explains in an introduction that not many people want to examine the life of Buchanan. People want to believe that Presidents are heroes. And almost everyone thinks that Buchanan’s successor was the greatest President ever. But, Baker explains, there is value in learning about how someone like Buchanan, who had one of the most distinguished resumes of any person elected President, could be so bad.

Buchanan was born into a well-to-do family in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. His father sent him to Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Buchanan wasn’t a great student, and was briefly expelled from school for bad behavior, but managed to graduate. He never spoke well of his alma mater. (The school website’s history section doesn’t mention that Buchanan attended. Baker did speak about this book at Dickinson.)

Upon graduation, Buchanan moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania to study law as an apprentice. Buchanan felt that working in Pennsylvania’s capital would be beneficial to his practice. He passed the bar in 1812, the same year Pennsylvania moved its capital to Harrisburg. (I once got lost in Harrisburg after pulling off the highway too early. Don’t ever do that. Take my word for it. No one needs to see that much of Harrisburg.)

However, Buchanan kept his practice in Lancaster, which still was one of Pennsylvania’s largest cities. Apparently, he did a good job because he earned a sizable income and was pulling in what would be a six figure income today by the time he was 30.

Buchanan also became involved with a woman name Ann Coleman. They became engaged in 1819.  But, the marriage was called off. No one knows for sure why it happened. Baker believes that Coleman tired of Buchanan’s lack of affection for her. Also, Buchanan was seen in the company of another woman while they were engaged. Coleman died soon after (of an unknown cause, although she was extremely distraught) the engagement ended. Coleman’s father refused to let Buchanan come to his daughter’s funeral. Buchanan would never marry.

The bachelorhood of Buchanan has often been shown as “proof” that Buchanan was homosexual. Baker doesn’t believe there is any proof of it. First of all, Baker points out, no one in Buchanan’s time would have identified himself as homosexual. There were just men who sometimes had sex with other men. Denial was prevalent. Buchanan likely was involved in criminal cases as a lawyer where men were accused of homosexual acts that were deemed illegal at that time.

Also, Buchanan may have just been not interested in sex. Baker tells us that Buchanan never had to shave in his life. He couldn’t grow facial hair. She posits the idea that Buchanan may have suffered from a hormonal imbalance that left him generally uninterested in sex with anyone.

In his writings, Buchanan would mention his desire to get married, but only for career reasons. Buchanan liked the idea of a woman who would cook for him and take care of him, but he certainly didn’t want to have to be affectionate or caring or chatty.

According to Baker, Buchanan’s lack of a spouse was an important part of his Presidency. Because Buchanan had no wife and family to rely on for support, his closest friends became other government officials. And the people who tended to be the friendliest toward Buchanan were Southerners. Buchanan would, for a time, share a room (and a bed) with Alabama Senator William King. The two men were very close and Andrew Jackson dubbed them “Miss Nancy” and “Aunt Fancy.” (Buchanan was actually a big supporter of Jackson.)

Despite his personal setbacks, Buchanan’s political career moved along well. He worked his way through Pennsylvania state government and on to the House of Representatives, and later a position as Minister to Russia.

Upon his return from Russia, Buchanan set his sights on the Senate. He lost in his first try, but the Pennsylvania Legislature elected him in 1834 to fill a vacant term. Buchanan worked his way up to the Chairmanship of the Foreign Relations Committee.

In 1844, Buchanan felt that his time had come to run for President. However, James Polk took the nomination and won the election. Polk showed his appreciation for Buchanan’s work in the campaign by naming him Secretary of State. However, Buchanan thought that he might want to serve on the Supreme Court. He vacillated between the two. Polk decided to leave Buchanan at State, tiring of Buchanan’s indecision.

Buchanan served as Secretary of State during the Mexican War, an early demonstration of America’s desire to acquire territory by any means necessary. The new territory added by the Mexican War would almost prove to be the nation’s undoing as heated debates sprung up over whether the new territory would be free or slave. Buchanan sided with pro-slavery forces; but, the matter was not decided before Polk’s term had ended.

Denied the nomination again in 1848 by the Democrats (Lewis Cass was the nominee and he lost to Whig party candidate Zachary Taylor), Buchanan found himself without a position in government. He spent time back at his Lancaster estate, Wheatland, where he kept an eye on the political scene with hope for a run for the White House again in 1852.

Buchanan was certain that 1852 was his year. But, the Democratic Convention was deadlocked for 49 ballots until Franklin Pierce, a man who would later look great compared to Buchanan, won the nomination and the election. Buchanan was given a post as Minister to the Court of St. James in London.

While it may have seemed like political exile for Buchanan to serve in London, it actually worked out to his benefit. The debate over the expansion of slavery into the new territories became even more heated. The flash point was in Kansas, which was believed to be the last part of the country that could operate with a slave-based economy. Congress, behind the efforts of Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This allowed the residents of each of those territories to decide for themselves whether or not slavery would be allowed in their borders.

Instead of this turning out to be a peaceful triumph of popular democracy, “popular sovereignity” (as Douglas’ plan was called) led to pro- and antislavery forces flooding into Kansas. Eventually, two governments were established in Kansas. Deciding which one was legitimate proved to be Pierce’s undoing. Pierce backed the proslavery Lecompton government, and disavowed the antislavery Topeka government. (The relative locations of the two Kansas cities can be seen at this link.) By the end of Pierce’s term, the matter still had not been settled. Pierce was denied renomination by the Democrats because of the uproar.

So, who did the Democrats turn to in 1856? They turned to a man who hadn’t been in the country while the debate over Kansas inflamed the people. Buchanan would finally get his chance to run for President.

Buchanan had spent his time concentrating on European affairs; although, he did participate in crafting a memorandum along with two other Southern diplomats serving in Europe called the Ostend Manifesto. This manifesto stated that the United States should use whatever means necessary to acquire Cuba from Spain. Buchanan saw Cuba as crucial to American interests, as well as a place where a slave-based economy could be put in place. The Ostend Manifesto was widely denounced in the North by antislavery forces. These antislavery politicians had formed a new political party: the Republicans.

The Republicans first nominee for President was John C. Fremont, an explorer and military hero (of sorts) from the Mexican War. Although born in Georgia and married to the daughter of Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, Fremont had actually served in the Senate representing California.

In a modern day campaign, the 65-year old Buchanan, a bachelor as well as a man who had to always tilt his head at an angle because his eyes didn’t always point the same direction along with being farsighted and nearsighted in different eyes, would have been no match against the dashing Fremont.  But, this was 1856. Few people saw the candidates in person. And the South dominated the Electoral College. Buchanan won election fairly easily. It also helped that the Republicans weren’t even on the ballot in Southern states.

James Buchanan now had won the job that he had sought since 1844. He filled his Cabinet with Southerners, with the exception of Lewis Cass, who was the Secretary of State. Buchanan didn’t have much use for Cass and intended to carry out foreign policy on his own, with the goal of acquiring Cuba.

In his inaugural address, Buchanan spoke of how the issue of the expansion of slavery in the territories would soon be decided by the Supreme Court. The famous case of Dred Scott v. Sandford would be decided soon after the inauguration. Scott, a slave, was suing for his freedom in Federal court on the basis that he gained his freedom when his owner moved with him to a free territory.

Buchanan had made inquiries before the March 4 inaugural to determine the status of the case. One of the justices, John Catron of Tennessee told Buchanan that the Court would rule against Scott, but only on narrow grounds.

Catron suggested that Buchanan speak with the court’s Pennsylvanian justice, Robert Grier, to get him to go along with Chief Justice Roger Taney’s broader opinion. Buchanan did so, and Taney handed down an opinion, with Grier’s concurrence, that stated that Congress had no power whatsoever to regulate slavery in the territories.

Furthermore, Taney ruled that a slaveowner held on to his slaves as his personal property in perpetuity. It was not a right that could be infringed upon by Congress. Buchanan thought that the decision settled the matter, which was naive. The Dred Scott decision only served to draw more people over to the antislavery side. Increasingly, Northerners believed that the Federal government was nothing but a tool for Southern slave owners.

More bad news came for Buchanan in the form of a financial panic. The Panic of 1857 hit the United States soon after Buchanan took office. There had been much land speculation in the West in the years prior to 1857. That market collapsed and set off a financial downturn. Buchanan, in his message to Congress about the Panic, stated that the Federal government was not empowered to give individuals any relief. Buchanan just waited for the problem to fix itself. It didn’t bother Buchanan much that Northern states were more affected by the Panic than Southern states.

But, Buchanan had more ways to screw up. And with the Kansas situation, Buchanan displayed his inability to lead in many different ways.

The problem of the two competing governments in Kansas had not been resolved when Buchanan took office. Buchanan decided to accept the proslavery Lecompton government as the legitimate one in the territory, even though it represented a minority of the residents. The Lecompton government submitted a proposed constitution to Congress. If Congress approved it, statehood would follow.

The Senate, with enough pro-slavery Southerners in office, approved the constitution. But, the House would be a different matter. The population of the free states greatly outnumbered the slave states. (Baker says it was about 80% to 20%; although, Buchanan insisted in public that it was closer to 50-50.)

Buchanan undertook an aggressive lobbying effort of House members to get them to vote in favor of the Lecompton pact. Baker writes of how Buchanan promised to use his patronage power to reward compliant House members. There was even talk that some members of the House were bribed (through intermediaries) either with money or prostitutes.

Despite Buchanan’s efforts, the House voted down the Lecompton constitution. But, Buchanan would not give up. He suggested a new bill that would have granted Kansas immediate statehood (instead of waiting to reach the recommended minimum population of 93,000) if it adopted the Lecompton constitution. Congress passed the bill, but the voters of Kansas (all of them this time as there had been earlier disputed elections), voted to not accept the pro-slavery constitution. It was rejected by a margin of 11,000 to 1,800.

In the wake of this political fiasco, the Republicans took control of Congress in the 1858 elections. An investigation was started to examine Buchanan’s actions during the Kansas constitution votes. Buchanan refused to cooperate with the investigation. He believed that Congress had no right to investigate any wrongdoing by him. (If Congress had kept looking, evidence that Buchanan’s Secretary of War received kickbacks from contractors would have turned up also.)

Buchanan had promised to serve only one term. The Democrats were happy to be rid of him. However, the Democrats split into two over the slavery issue, nominating two candidates: Stephen Douglas (whom Buchanan hated) and John Breckinridge (whom Buchanan disliked also and he was the Vice President.) John Bell of Tennessee ran as the candidate of the Constitutional Union Party, a nativist faction. And, there was a fourth candidate: a Republican from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln won easily despite not appearing on the ballot in any Southern state.

Faced with the prospect of an antislavery President, the state of South Carolina held a special convention and voted to secede from the United States. During the final four months of Buchanan’s administration, Buchanan showed himself to be unable to deal with the problem of secession.

Buchanan believed that: 1) no state had the right to secede and 2) the Federal government had no authority to force a state to stay in the Union. So Buchanan did very little to stop the secession movement, which soon spread to other states.

Baker, and other historians of this time period, believed that Buchanan, at least, could have tried to politically isolate the more radical secessionists. This could have isolated the problem to South Carolina or a few neighboring states. But, left unchecked, almost the entire South had seceded by the time Lincoln was inaugurated. And, the Confederate States of America had become organized.

Buchanan compounded the problems by having so many Southerners in his administration. This gave the Confederate states intimate knowledge of the strengths of the U.S. Army, as well as Federal properties throughout the South. Baker goes as far as to accuse Buchanan of treason in the amount of assistance he gave to the Confederacy.

Eventually, Buchanan would take a stand at an Army fort in Charleston called Fort Sumter. The state of South Carolina wanted the fort surrendered. Buchanan could not accept “surrendering” a Federal facility to a state. This didn’t prevent Buchanan from entering into negotiations with South Carolina officials about the fort, granting the secessionists an air of legitimacy.

In the final two months of his Presidency, Buchanan’s Southern cabinet members resigned. Northerners were appointed to take their place. Buchanan was starting to stay up late hours and asking Cabinet members to sleep over at the White House to keep him company.

Buchanan decided that he would try to send supplies to Fort Sumter to help defend it. However, the supply ship was never able to get to the fort and offload its cargo. Eventually, Fort Sumter’s supplies would run out, but that would be after March 4, 1861. That would be Abraham Lincoln’s problem.

Of all the presidential biographies I’ve read so far, this is the first one where the author had absolutely no regard for the subject. Jean Baker found nothing redeeming in Buchanan’s life. Nevertheless, the book is worth reading, if only to see just what Lincoln had to follow. No President ever took office in more trying circumstances than Lincoln. It’s quite possible that James Buchanan would be second in that category. But, only one of them succeeded at his job.

Other stuff: James Buchanan’s estate, Wheatland, is in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and is operated by the James Buchanan Foundation. The bibliography of suggested readings about Buchanan on the estate’s website includes Baker’s book.

James Buchanan’s birthplace is a Pennsylvania state park called, Buchanan’s Birthplace State Park. It is near Cove Gap, Pennsylvania. Or Fort Loudon. Or Cowan’s Gap. Or Mercersburg. Here’s a map.

There is also a memorial to James Buchanan in Meridian Hill Park (part of Rock Creek Park) in Washington, DC.

Buchanan’s Vice President, John C. Breckinridge, was just 36 years old when inaugurated. He remains the youngest Vice President ever. Breckenridge was the SECOND Vice President to be indicted for treason (the other being Aaron Burr). Breckenridge, who served in the Confederate government, was not tried.

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