One of the ongoing projects I’ve taken on over the past few years is that I wanted to read a biography of every U.S. President in chronological order, and learn about all the varying stories of leaders throughout American history. Just in general it was a cool project since it would give me something to fit in loosely into my ever-growing reading list, but also it was a fascinating way to approach studying American history and to be presented with many versions of leadership, with results ranging from legendary to catastrophic.
So it may seem kind of random that I’m currently writing about James Buchanan, the 15th President, but that is because that is where I currently am in my reading even though I haven’t written about much of the previous 14. I did write about a couple of the Founding Fathers, but starting now I’ll be posting summaries of the presidents I read.
With that, let’s talk about James Buchanan, a President that most modern historians agree upon being the worst President in U.S. History, primarily for aggravating the hostility between North & South states that caused the eruption of the Civil War.
Who was James Buchanan?
James Buchanan was a Pennsylvania Democrat who was the 15th president, who preceded a quite notable president: Abraham Lincoln. Buchanan is the only bachelor president, but he’s most notably known as the worst president in history (to date).
Why is he so poorly regarded?
The short answer is that the Southern states seceded during the end of his presidency. The little longer answer is that he basically kept making matters worse with every issue that finally put the Southern states in a position to not just threaten secession, but actually set out to make it happen. He did things like encourage the ruling of the infamous Dred Scott case ruling to be a national ruling that slaves were not considered people and thus had no rights. He also pushed the rhetoric that Republicans were extremist abolitionists, so when Abraham Lincoln was elected as a Republican, it unified the south in that Lincoln was a threat to their way of living and must act. He also allowed a lot of corrupt deals to take place in his administration that helped easy access for seceding officials to collaborate and gain supplies.
What was his political stance?
America is united; Manifest Destiny always; state’s rights are supreme and diplomacy is the key. Extremists on either side are dangerous and could aggravate unity, thus it is better to be hands off and let each state do as it wishes.
Is there anything redeeming about him?
While he did a lot to help southern states to preserve slavery, he was personally against it. He just didn’t think it was up to him to impose his conviction, but he did act on his personal convictions and there are at least two recorded accounts of him purchasing slaves so that he could bring them to a free state and grant them their freedom.
Born to a Irish immigrant in Cope Gap Pennsylvania, James Buchanan was born on April 23rd 1791, making him one of the first Presidents to be born into the internationally recognized country that he served (after Taylor & Tyler). He studied at Dickinson College to study law and in 1812 was admitted to the Pennsylvania bar. 1812 is also the year of the meaningless war with England, and Buchanan served in the defense of Baltimore during that time.
Buchanan then set up his law office in Lancaster, Pennsylvania where he would from then on call home. He was a relatively tall man with a physically imposing figure, who had one eye that was nearsighted and one farsighted, which caused him to talk with his head cocked to a side that made his looking down at you more pronounced. He quickly became a powerful and persuasive lawyer which came with early accumulation of wealth.
One of the more notable things about Buchanan is that he is currently the only bachelor President in U.S. history, but Buchanan was engaged prior to going into politics to a wealthy iron-manufacturing heiress named Ann Coleman in 1819. Buchanan though was more focused on building up his practice than investing in the relationship, and Ann broke off the engagement, claiming that he was only interested in her money. The bizarre part of this event was after Buchanan came back from a 6 week trip of arguing a case at the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Buchanan went to Ann’s house to confront her about the broken engagement and requested the return of his letters and gifts he had sent her. The next day she expressed fatigue and took some laudanum before going to bed and the next day her family found her dead in her bed. The common conclusion is that she committed suicide, and her family was so bitter towards Buchanan that when he requested to pay his respects at her funeral, Mr. Coleman prohibited him from coming.
Buchanan’s bachelor status has aroused speculation that the reason for this was that Buchanan was actually a homosexual. While the evidence is vague and far from conclusive, there are noticeable facts that encourage the possibility. Buchanan’s lack of dedication to Ann and her assumed suicide is one part, but another factor is that later on during Buchanan’s time as a U.S. Senator, he lived with Alabama Senator, William Rufus King for 10 years. They appeared to be more than just roommates in that many jokes were made of the two of them, like President Jackson nicknaming them, “Miss Nancy, & Aunt Fancy”, or Aaron Brown calling King, Buchanan’s “better half.” While that in itself isn’t much, and during this era male bonds were more deeply expressed than typically are now, but when Buchanan was elected President, King and Buchanan burned all the correspondence letters between them. The feminine connotation stayed with Buchanan as he on numerous times was indecisive on accepting political positions. Secretary of State Marcy mocked Buchanan by making a very sexist comment that, “the truth is, old bachelors as well as young maids do not always know their own minds.” While modern historians are eager to claiming Buchanan as the first gay President, there is just as much evidence to say that Buchanan was asexual and did not possess much of a sex drive in either direction since the lack of any explicit relationship or much of any rumors of him being in secret relationships nor even evidence of the topic of sex found in his private letters.
Here’s the thing, even though Buchanan is regarded as the worst President, he certainly was not the least qualified, in fact, his resume while entering The White House was probably one of the most impressive to date. After starting a very successful and lucrative career in practicing law, Buchanan quickly turned to politics, which he had some kind of direct contact with each of the ten presidents from James Monroe to his predecessor, Franklin Pierce. He served as a congressman, a senator, Andrew Jackson’s ambassador to Russia, Franklin Pierce’s ambassador to England, and was James Polk’s Secretary of State. Buchanan not only had experience, but a diverse experience of many different quality roles to be a key observer of American politics.
I won’t elaborate much on his politics prior to being President, but one notable thing about Buchanan was that he was a strong nationalist who deeply held onto Manifest Destiny. Buchanan believed that America deserved to hold as much of the New World as possible and he didn’t even let party influence sway his convictions. While Manifest Destiny was true for many politicians, it had constraints to it in that Northerners supported expansion into Canada and Oregon, but were against expanding into Texas or into Mexico. Southerners were just the opposite because expanding south opened up more slave states and expanding north would open up more free states. Buchanan didn’t care and wanted it all. He even took this to heart and stood up against Daniel Webster’s treaty to fix the northern border between Maine and Canada since America would lose 8,000 square miles, even though he was only one of the nine senators to vote against the treaty.
After Franklin Pierce imploded as a President when he signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which nullified the Missouri Compromise, Pierce was abandoned by the Democratic Party in 1856 as he sought reelection. The nation was at a breaking point and so Democrats turned to Buchanan for their nominee. Buchanan was the ideal choice since he carried credibility, and being from Pennsylvania with ties to Southern states, Buchanan was seen as the perfect candidate to appeal to all fractioning sides. But Buchanan’s lack of action further empowered the Southern states to reinforce the idea of seceding from the Union and instead of bringing the country together, he inadvertently aggravated the start of The American Civil War.
A Failed Presidency:
But how did this all happen? How did such a qualified leader fail so miserably? To answer that, we’ll have to explore his beliefs and his influences.
Buchanan’s core: America is united; Manifest Destiny always; state’s rights are supreme and diplomacy is the key. Extremists on either side are dangerous and could aggravate unity, thus it is better to be hands off and let each state do as it wishes.
What this means is that Buchanan doesn’t see statism; he doesn’t care about North vs. South, but just sees America, and America is a united country that is destined for greatness. Since there is such a strong division between states, Buchanan’s solution is found in the Constitution in State’s rights. For him the easy solution is a passive stance that says each state can pretty much do what they want. “If you don’t like what your state is doing, go to another state, that’s the value in having states. Stop trying to enforce your ideals onto other states and why can’t the South states keep their slaves and the North remain free?” What this also means is that he is absolutely against those who he regards as the extremists. Abolitionist Republicans are trying to enforce their way of life onto the Southerners, and the Secessionist South are harming America by trying to break it apart, and he’ll do whatever he can to keep them happy but he will do it without violence. This is because he believes that he has enough experience in politics that he can negotiate an equitable deal and will not use violence against his own people to enforce proper action,.
We see this appeasing to the hostile South from the very beginning in that on the day that he was sworn into office, he privately convinced the only northerner justice on Dred Scott case to vote for the nationalization of the ruling so that African American slaves were considered not citizens and thus, did not have rights no matter what state they were in. Justice Taney two days later voted to confirm that ruling and was the deciding vote that nationalized the Dred Scott ruling. This was done again because in Buchanan’s mind, this was an olive branch to the Southern states to preserve their way of life. But all it did was embolden the newly formed Republican Party.
The problem with Buchanan’s approach was that he apposed the extremes of both sides of political spectrum, but he did not treat those extremes equally. To the South, he was influenced by the Southern gentleman culture and thus treated the South with gentlemanly patience and cooperation. But he viewed abolitionists as self-righteous ideologues who were imposing their view onto others, and thus he worked hard to shut them up. The problem with this contrast of action is that it further strengthened the Southern unity to their cause, and Buchanan’s demonizing of the Republicans then made the narrative easy for the South to see a Republican win as a Southern loss. Buchanan inadvertently aggravated division through his means of reconciliation.
Buchanan’s support for Southern agendas caused the Democratic Party to fracture between North and South, the fast rising Republican Party had a clear shot at taking the Presidency. It is no wonder then when dark horse Illinois Congressman, Abraham Lincoln got the Republican nomination and then winning the Presidency, Southerners equated that as lethal to Southern way of life and thus, provoking South Carolina and six other states to secede from the Union.
When Lincoln had won, South Carolina wasted no time to pull the trigger and declared that they were seceding from the Union, which six more would follow before Lincoln was sworn in March of 1861. While Buchanan holds as a matter of pride that the war did not break out while he was in office, 7 of the 34 states had officially removed themselves from the Union that he had worked so hard to preserve. Now that the states have broken off, Buchanan had one last ideal to trip him up that further aggravated the severity of The Civil War in that he did nothing to stop the states from leaving. He felt like he was in a Catch-22 in that the Constitution did not allow the states to leave, but it also did not give him the right to enforce their return either. So while war was looming, Buchanan did nothing.
In fact, as early as October, before the election results were in, he was told by General Winfield Scott that the possible secession would provoke war and they needed to reinforce the federal forts in the Southern states. This reinforcement could have at least prevented the sacking of Fort Sumter that was the first battle and victory that carried the momentum for other states to follow in seceding. Also if Buchanan had enforced the return of the Southern States by force before Lincoln took office, then there would not have been time for the Southern States to organize themselves as thoroughly and thus limited the extent of the Civil War.
James Buchanan thought he could leverage his political weight to be a bridge that could connect the North and the South, but all he did was create a one-way path to the South and emboldened the division that he tried to prevent. While the Civil War was probably inevitable, Buchanan did nothing but aggravate the hostility and put the Southern rebellion in the most advantageous position to draw out a lengthy and deadly war.
What I take out of all this is this is a cautionary tale of what can go wrong with being the mediator. Buchanan lacked the patience to hear both sides of the two fighting sides and while he played middleman, he had already made up his mind on how things should be. If you are going to stand in the middle and be that bridge, it must be a two-way street; you must be facilitating the discovery of common ground and be bilingual to communicate from each party’s language of thought and be the interpreter to each other.
So yes, Buchanan did a terrible job, and I didn’t even go into detail about a handful of other controversies where he allowed the ends justify the means, but I don’t personally hold the man as a terrible person. Just so we end on the positive human side of Buchanan, here’s some redeeming qualities about him.
Buchanan bought a large estate in Lancaster called “Wheatland” with the wealth he accumulated from his law firm. With that, it became the home base for him being the family surrogate patriarch as he took care of those in his extended family. Several of his brothers and sisters had died or were completely impoverished, so Buchanan actively worked with 22 of his nieces and nephews to temporarily stay in Wheatland and/or to get jobs. He was the legal guardian to 7 of them, who were orphaned, and financially supported the surviving impoverished brothers and sisters. One of these orphaned nieces, Harriet lane, ended up moving with Buchanan to the White House and took on the position of “First Lady” since he was a bachelor, but she managed all the White House events and played the role of hostess.
For how much Buchanan helped preserve slavery in America, he personally was against it; he only supported these measures since it was a state matter and valued that over his own belief. While that is a common stance amongst most Northerners in pre-civil war era that weren’t abolitionists, Buchanan actually took small steps to live that out in that there are two recorded instances that he purchased slaves with his own money, and brought them to Pennsylvania where he then freed them.
I personally struggle with Buchanan, because when I read about him, I see someone who is trying to be a mediator, but failed miserably at it. I try to hold the middle ground and be able to communicate and mediate between two opposing sides, and Buchanan is a cautionary tale of what happens when you do it poorly. Buchanan saw the North as the stereotypical older child who had everything handed to them and had all the power, while the South was the younger temperamental child who was also the most adorable one. He thought he could just give the harsh discipline to the North to act up, and to be a softy to the South and eventually they’ll all get along. What I get out of this is Buchanan acted more like a flustered parent rather than one who sought reconciliation. Nothing in Buchanan’s policies were designed to bring the North and South together despite their differences.
So I guess that’s what I get out of this; if you’re in this position of power and there are two warring sides, to properly mediate is to amplify similarities and work towards understanding and finding a positive way forward together.
Who was Buchanan? Who was elected after him?
Was he an experienced or inexperienced politician?
Where did he stand on slavery?
Did the Civil War start while he was president?
- James Buchanan was the 15th president of the United States, and is considered the worst president in U.S. history. While there were a string a terrible presidential administrations leading up to him, he is at the bottom because of the Civil War and because the contrast between him and his predecessor, Abraham Lincoln is quite dramatic which amplify his failures.
- He was one of the most qualified and experienced president elects we’ve had, especially during the 1800s. He served in cabinet positions, ambassadorship positions, and served as a senator.
- He personally was against it, but did not use his power to prevent or to diminish it. In some ways he held a better stance than many of the founding fathers of America in that he was an active participant in freeing slaves rather than acquiring them.
- Technically it did not start during his administration. While states did secede during the last few months of his administration, the declaration of war was not official until a month into Lincoln’s administration.