Mark Roth's Reviews > President James Buchanan: A Biography

President James Buchanan by Philip Shriver Klein
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Nov 21, 2009

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bookshelves: presidental-biographies
Read from March 23 to June 19, 2010

This book is a well-written account of the life of America's 15th President, James Buchanan. It effectively paints a portrait of all periods of the subject's life, from childhood to death, but devotes extra focus on the final 6 months of his administration, leading up to Lincoln's election and the outbreak of the Civil War.

While not completely succumbing to the apologist trap of many older biographies (this one was written in 1962), the author does attempt to paint Buchanan in a positive light. He does convincingly portray Buchanan as experienced, honest, and good-intentioned. He also explains Buchanan's political positions throughout his life as a consistent focus on legalistic principles above party or sectional issues.

However, Buchanan seems to have used that very legalistic focus as a way to duck his own responsibility as a leader, especially during the secession crisis; he stubbornly interpreted the President's role to be strictly that of enforcing the laws enacted by Congress, which prevented him from taking any sort of strong action in the absence of Congressional legislation. The author fails to explicitly criticize Buchanan for this; on the contrary, he seems to defend him by presenting Buchanan's own argument that there was no possible constitutional action he could have taken at the time. The author *does* briefly criticize Buchanan for inappropriately blaming Major Anderson (the C.O. of Fort Sumter) for Buchanan's failure to reinforce the fort, but it seems that this was only one example of Buchanan's tendency to duck responsibilities that were rightfully his.

Still, I do accept the author's premise that Buchanan, despite his faults, is unfairly maligned by history. While it's inevitable (and proper) that he get a share of the blame for the onset of the Civil War, it's also unlikely that a stronger leader would have been able to fully avoid the conflict that had been already brewing for 50 years. It's also not surprising that he should come up short when compared to his successor, Lincoln, who is one of the most revered Presidents in U.S. history.

Despite Buchanan's faults, this book did improve my opinion of him, and it was a well-written and enjoyable portrayal of his life and times. I would recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about Buchanan and his era.
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