President #15, C-SPAN Historians Ranking #42
You know my successor and I average a ranking of 21.5!
As 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.