The morning of July 4th saw me curled up on my couch, flipping through channels and biding my time so I wasn’t the first one to arrive at my acquaintance’s afternoon holiday party. Failing to find anything patriotic enough on TV, I turned to The American Presidents.
James Buchanan by Jean H. Baker is book #15 in The American Presidents series, so numbered because Buchanan was our 15th President. This is the poor chap utterly forgotten by history because he had the misfortune to come before President #16, the much-beloved Abraham Lincoln. In Buchanan’s case, as Baker shows, it’s probably better to be forgotten than remembered since if one recalls anything about him, it’s likely to be the fact that he let the South secede.
Buchanan was a waffley sort of fellow – he alternated between chasing the Presidency and aspiring to be a reclusive country gentleman. He fell into politics after beginning a law career, becoming an ardent Democrat with a long and distinguished service in an array of roles: a representative from Pennsylvania in the House of Representatives, then a Senator, then an ambassador, then Secretary of State. He even almost made it to the Supreme Court, requesting to be appointed by 2 different presidents before changing his mind and rejecting their offers to do so.
I hadn’t realized the extent of his civil service experience, but unfortunately his case goes to show that experience isn’t everything. Once he finally attained the presidency, after losing several times, he utterly failed at being President. From his days in Congress, he had befriended Southern gentlemen, was possibly even in a romantic relationship with one, and displayed obvious sympathy towards the pro-slavery cause. His fellow Northerners derided him as a “doughface” and he quickly lost their esteem with his policies of appeasement to the South, particularly in the fight over slavery in Kansas.
It’s easy to see why he’s commonly ranked among the worst presidents in retrospect. He struggled to act decisively in many scenarios, even to implement his beloved plan of annexing Cuba. When he did wield his authority, it was through bribery and patronage systems, making his administration one of the most corrupt in American history as he surrounded himself with sycophants. He pressured a friend on the Supreme Court to vote against Dred Scott, thereby disrupting the balance between the executive and judicial branches. Reluctant to utilize military force, despite historical precedent, he declared attempts to stop the disintegration of the union to be illegal. Because of that, he almost lost Fort Sumter to Southern aggression before the war had even started.
Baker does a good job of laying out these facts and still making Buchanan sympathetic. His character was all wrong for the Presidency, but he wasn’t necessarily a bad person. He wanted to be loved and admired, but chose the wrong side of history to ally with.
Her book is a highly readable look at a largely unknown, but pivotal figure in the lead-up to the American Civil War and how his actions (or inaction) influenced history.