“History shall vindicate my memory from every unjust aspersion” – these were the dying words of James Buchanan, the fifteenth President of the United States. In keeping with the rest of his presidency, however, Buchanan’s remark would turn out to be misguided. Every major poll carried out since 1948 has ranked him as one of the three worst presidents in American history. Today, historians view his tenure in office as a time of unsuccessful policies, failed attempts to bring the North and South together and the first acts of the Civil War.
On paper, his presidency should have been a success. Buchanan was one of the most politically esteemed figures of his day; he had worked as an effective lawyer and he had served in both chambers of Congress, the diplomatic court and as Secretary of State. He was a firm moderate and appeared to be the perfect antidote for the country’s viciously divided political climate. This moderation would prove to be his downfall. The America of the mid-19th century needed a conviction-driven radical who would attempt serious reform, not a centrist candidate acceptable to all parties. Standing in the middle of the road only led to Buchanan getting run over, and his attempts to split Solomon’s baby only left him clutching half a child in each hand.
Buchanan’s term of office began in 1857, and the great challenge he faced was that of maintaining the union given the extremely polarising issue of slavery. Tensions between the northern states and the southern states were running high, and Buchanan wanted to find a solution to cool the temperature. He failed magnificently. Despite being personally opposed to slavery, Buchanan firmly believed that the Constitution made the practice legal, and so he was determined to maintain a system he disliked. As President-elect, Buchanan took the unusual step of lobbying the Supreme Court over Dredd-Scott v. Sanford. Tragically, the Supreme Court agreed with Buchanan, ruled against Dredd-Scott and declared that black people “are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the world ‘citizens’ in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States.” While ultimately the Supreme Court was responsible, Buchanan’s involvement in Dredd-Scott is the first dark mark on his record, and a sign of what was to come.
Buchanan’s cabinet appointments also greatly hindered his chances of healing the widening chasm between North and South. Michael Todd Landis wrote that Buchanan’s Cabinet “consisted of four Southerners, one elderly Northern statesman quite agreeable to Southerners, and two additional Northern men who were considered doughfaces.” Having been chosen principally on the criteria of agreeability, “Buchanan’s cabinet did not even represent a range of interests and opinions within the Democratic party, much less the nation.” This Cabinet made healing the divisions within America almost impossible. Even in his strategic bias towards appeasing the slavery supporting South, Buchanan failed – as subsequent events would show. At the same time, his championing of states’ rights effectively cut all his ties with Northern Democrats. Other domestic errors of Buchanan’s Presidency included a minor financial crisis and an expanded deficit, yet all his blunders paled in comparison to his handling of the slavery issue.
Buchanan came to office with an ambitious foreign policy agenda. He wished to establish US influence in Central America, finally displacing Britain as the region’s hegemon. He planned to acquire Cuba, and he was even considering purchasing Alaska from the Russian Empire. Yet Buchanan failed to achieve any of these goals. He was unable to persuade the House of Representatives to take steps over Cuba and he also failed to agree a price with the Russians, meaning negotiations over Alaska broke down. Finally, domestic unrest and divisions meant that America could not effectively extend its influence anywhere. Ultimately, the only addition that Buchanan’s ambitious foreign policy program made to the U.S. was the herd of elephants that the King of Siam sent as a gift.
Unsurprisingly, Buchanan was ineffective at winning elections and maintaining power – something that any effective, democratic leader must be able to do. In the 1858 mid-term elections, the Republicans were able to win a significant plurality of the House. Buchanan himself served only one term before standing down, only to see his party’s candidate, John C. Breckinridge, lose by 180 electoral college votes to 72 in a landslide to Abraham Lincoln.
Yet Buchanan’s worst error was his handling of the looming Civil War. With the election of Abraham Lincoln, secession began. Seven states left the union, Fort Sumter was besieged and all-out war became almost inevitable. What is often forgotten is that the man who presided over the beginnings of the Civil War was James Buchanan. When South Carolina became the first state to break away, Buchanan did little to halt the growing tide, and was even ambiguous on whether secession was legal. He attempted to organise a constitutional ammendment to permit slavery and calm the South, but once again he failed. Apart from a bungled attempt to relieve Fort Sumter, which had already been weakened due to military spending cuts authorised by Buchanan, nothing of consequence was done to prevent the coming Civil War, which would claim more American lives than every conflict before Vietnam combined.
Buchanan’s name will go down as a dark stain on the office of President. His support for slavery led to massive human suffering and his failure to navigate the political landscape of the time contributed significantly to the deadliest war in U.S. history. It is often noted that true tragedy is the unique confluence of an individual being placed in the one situation that their personality, skills and experiences make them wholly unable to cope with. In another time, perhaps Buchanan’s conciliatory approach could have had moderate success. But Buchanan was a weak president at a time when America needed strength, he supported outdated and morally bankrupt policies at a time when America needed radical reform and he failed to lead at a time when America needed leadership. History has not vindicated Buchanan, and by any metric he remains America’s worst president.
Boulard, G., 2015. The Worst President – The Story of James Buchanan. iUniverse.