Kierstin's Reviews > James Buchanan

James Buchanan by Jean H. Baker
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Aug 19, 10

Read from July 27 to August 12, 2010

James Buchanan was our 15th President and a Democrat, which made me predisposed to like him, him being the incarnation of my favorite number ever. Unfortunately, but hopefully not prophetically, Buchanan sucked.

He was the only President to date to hail from Pennsylvania and the only bachelor. (The author spends an inordinate amount of text laying the case for his homosexuality, which is quite convincing. It makes for good reading but does it matter? Nope.) He was a successful lawyer, Congressman, Senator, Minister to Russia and the UK, and Secretary of State, and was considered one of the most qualified men to become President. So why is he considered in the top five of worst presidents ever?

Let's call it a draw between unfortunate times and circumstances, and character flaws inherent in Buchanan. At the start, between Buchanan's election and inauguration, there is conjecture that he influenced the outcome of the Dred Scott case, which was decided in the intervening months. The decision, which effectively extended slavery to the western territories, was the first indicator of Buchanan's southern leanings. He furthered the trend by supporting the pro-slavery government established in the new territory of Kansas, despite the objections of the Kansans themselves. Finally, during the economic panic of 1857, Buchanan endorsed a wait-and-see policy that favored the cotton-safe South but left the manufacturing and trade dependent North to fail.

Buchanan's overt affinity for the South and defense of slavery caused both the division of the Democratic party and the birth of the abolitionist, anti-South Republican party. Buchanan's complete belief that the abolitionist movement would die out of its own accord led to the landslide victory of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 (despite only being allowed on ballets in the North).

Buchanan was warned of South Carolina's threatened secession if Lincoln was elected, but Buchanan feigned powerlessness to prevent them and allowed the South the duration of his lame duck time to amass federal resources prior to official secession began around Christmastime. Buchanan maintained that secession was constitutionally prohibited, but so too was any federal response to stop them. Hence, when Fort Sumter was in danger of overrun, Buchanan's new Unionist cabinet (his original cabinet was stocked full of Southerners who defected to the CSA) took control of the government and ordered Federal reinforcement of publicly owned infrastructure. But by then it was too late, and all but four arsenals fell to Confederate control. Buchanan took to his bed for the final month of his Presidency and was quoted hoping history would vindicate him.

Buchanan left Washington to retire to his plantation-esque residence in Lancaster County, PA, leaving Lincoln a rebelling South and a broke, broken North. He published a defense of his Administration in 1866, and was known to espouse unionist sentiments throughout the Civil War. He died in 1868, fortunately well before historians would repeatedly vote him a terrible, awful president for his failure to arrest the secessions now deemed preventable.

I have to say though, Minnesota was accepted as a state during the Buchanan Presidency, so it can't have been all bad :-)


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