For the eight years of George W. Bush’s administration, Liberals would tell each other that he was the worst president in American history, or as they put it; Worst. President. Ever. Since Barack Obama was elected, Conservatives have been pleased to return the compliment, with perhaps considerably more reason. Still, the truth is that it is too soon to properly evaluate either man’s presidential ranking and announcing that either is the absolute worst shows a sort of shortsighted historical ignorance that is all too common these days.
Most historians consider that the worst American President was James Buchanan, largely because of his inaction on the eve of the American Civil War. It is possible that the war could have been won earlier and far less bloodily, or even averted altogether if Buchanan at acted at once to suppress the rebellion. As it was, his dithering may have condemned the country to its bloodiest war.
To look at Buchanan’s resume, one would think he would make at least a decent President. Not one of the greatest perhaps, but certainly not the worst. He was born in 1791 in a log cabin in Pennsylvania, thus fulfilling the most important requirement for a nineteenth century politician. Buchanan never married and it is possible he was the first homosexual President. There were rumors that he and his friend Vice-President William Rufus King had an intimate relationship. In fact, the two were referred to as Buchanan and his wife. Unfortunately, King died in 1853 and so was unable to serve as first lady when Buchanan became President. On the other hand, it is also possible that this was no more than hostile gossip. Buchanan was engaged to Ann Caroline Coleman, the daughter of a wealthy businessman. She broke off the engagement and died soon after, devastating the young Buchanan.
James Buchanan fought in the War of 1812, helping to defend Baltimore from the British. He entered politics as a Federalist in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives from 1814-1816. He then left the legislature to pursue a successful career as a lawyer. He reentered politics in 1820, winning a seat in Congress as a Federalist. By this time, the Federalist Party was all but defunct so Buchanan became a democrat and a supporter of Andrew Jackson. He helped Jackson in the elections of 1824 and 1828 and in return, Jackson appointed him minister to Russia in 1832.
Buchanan was successful in this post as well, negotiating the first trade treaty between the United States and Russia. He returned to the United States the following year and served in the Senate from 1834-1845. He resigned to serve as President Polk’s Secretary of State and he was largely responsible for Polk’s successful policy of territorial expansion. He also served as minister to Great Britain from 1853 to 1856.
In 1856, the Democratic Party nominated James Buchanan for the presidency. The key issue in American politics at the time was slavery and the increasing sectional tensions that slavery was causing. Anyone who expressed a strong opinion for or against slavery, or who was identified too strongly with the North or the South was sure to alienate half the country and was therefore unelectable
Buchanan, therefore, had two advantages. He had been out of the country and so had not taken a position on the crisis in Kansas, and he was known to be a northerner who was sympathetic to slavery. He won easily enough, carrying every single slave state, except for Maryland, which went for Millard Fillmore, while the Republican; John Fremont carried most of the Northern states. This was not a good sign.
Under ordinary circumstances, James Buchanan might have been a decent president. Buchanan was largely successful in dealing with issues like a depression in 1857 and trouble with the Mormons in the Utah Territory. But these were not ordinary times. Slavery was tearing the country apart and Buchanan simply out of his depth. Caught between the two sides, he never really understood how passionate the issue had become to so many people, North and South. Slavery was no longer an issue on which it was possible to compromise, if it ever was.
To the extent that James Buchanan involved himself in the slavery dispute, he invariably made things worse. Two days after his inauguration, the Supreme Court issued the Dred Scott decision. The fact that this decision denied Dred Scott his freedom was outrageous enough to the abolitionists, but the broader decision to declare the Compromise of 1820 unconstitutional, denying Congress the power to outlaw slavery infuriated many northerners who had previously been relatively apathetic. Buchanan had written to Justice Taney urging the broader decision to be made to settle the slavery issue. His action only drove the two sides farther apart.
Then there was Kansas. There was already a civil war being fought in Kansas between those who wanted Kansas admitted to the union as a free state, and those who wanted Kansas to be a slave state. Buchanan tried his best to have Kansas admitted as slave state. This cost him all his support among northern Democrats and left his rival Stephen Douglas in charge of the party.
It should not be too surprising that by the time his term had ended, President Buchanan was deeply unpopular. The Republicans had managed to gain control of Congress in 1858 and the two branches of government were locked in gridlock. Buchanan had declared he would only serve one term at his inauguration his administration had so divided the country that the election of 1860 became the most contentious in American history. The Democrats probably would have won but the Democratic Party had become divided by section. The northern Democrats nominated Stephen Douglas while the southerner nominated Vice-President John C. Breckinridge. John Bell ran under the Constitutional Union party banner while the Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln.
Because the Democrats were divided, Lincoln won a plurality of the votes cast, only 39.8%. He had a clear majority in the Electoral College and so was elected president, without a single Southern vote. As a result of the election, seven states seceded and formed the Confederate States of America. Four other states soon joined them.
This was the greatest crisis in American history. If ever the country needed leadership, this was the occasion. Unfortunately, this happened to be the time when James Buchanan would show that he did deserve to be considered the worst President ever. He did nothing. He did nothing to suppress the growing rebellion. He did nothing to prevent the Confederates from forming a government and an army and then seizing federal forts and arsenals. If he had taken some sort of decisive action, the rebellion might have been ended relatively quickly. Instead, he bequeathed to his successor, Lincoln, a bloody war with a rival nation fully prepared for a long struggle.
James Buchanan lived until June 1, 1868. He wrote his memoirs to defend his administration. The day before his death, he declared, “History will vindicate my memory”. It hasn’t.
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