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James Buchanan

(The American Presidents #15)

3.75  ·  Rating details ·  1,208 ratings  ·  111 reviews
A provocative reconsideration of a presidency on the brink of Civil War

Almost no president was as well trained and well prepared for the office as James Buchanan. He had served in the Pennsylvania state legislature, the U.S. House, and the U.S. Senate; he was Secretary of State and was even offered a seat on the Supreme Court. And yet, by every measure except his own,
Hardcover, 192 pages
Published June 7th 2004 by Times Books (first published January 1st 2004)
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Average rating 3.75  · 
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 ·  1,208 ratings  ·  111 reviews

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Bill Kerwin
Jun 29, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: biography, history

James Buchanan is considered by many to be America’s worst president. (At least he was considered America’s worst president until July 17, 2018, the day Putin’s Orange Puppet danced his little Helsinki dance.) But is that fair to Buchanan? Was the old man really that bad?

After reading Jean H. Baker’s well-written, informative biography, I’ve decided Buchanan does deserve the honor, but for reasons different from the ones customarily given. Buchanan is usually portrayed as a half-senile,
Jul 30, 2014 rated it really liked it
Book Twenty-Three of my Presidential Challenge.

"He was the most dangerous of chief executives, a stubborn, mistaken ideologue whose principles held no room for compromise. His experience in government had only rendered him too self-confident to consider other views. In his betrayal of the national trust, Buchanan came closer to committing treason than any other president in American history."

What makes a president a bad president? More to the point, what makes a bad president, the worst
Mar 05, 2009 rated it liked it
I’m less disposed than the author to lay blame for the Civil War on James Buchanan. The larger contour of the story must be considered and when it is her arguments do not stand up to scrutiny. One of Baker’s main themes is that Buchanan was a major cause of the Civil War because of his inaction and vacillation on slavery and states rights issues particularly during the four months between Lincoln’s election and his inauguration. Within that period seven states seceded from the Union and upon ...more
Doreen Petersen
Feb 14, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: presidents
I think the author did a really good job explaining all the facets of Buchanan's personality as well as his presidency. Buchanan was, without a doubt, one of the worst presidents the US has ever seen. To understand how easily the Civil War occurred this is a must read book.
Steve Harvey
Jul 16, 2017 rated it it was amazing
After visiting Buchanan's home (Wheatland, in Lancaster PA), I had to find out if he was really the worst president ever, or if he was just an unfortunate victim of timing. Would anyone who happened to fill the White House 1856-1860 have been doomed? Jean Baker writes convincingly that Buchanan's reputation was well-earned. Baker identifies his personal shortcomings, including a fundamentally pessimistic nature, a pro-Southern bias that left him blind to the evils of slavery and to the momentum ...more
Fred Kohn
May 14, 2015 rated it it was amazing
I'm a bit surprised at the rather low average rating of this book. This is the fourteenth book I have read in the series and the only one so far that has gotten five stars from me. Writing a book about a figure as important as an American president in a target of about 150 pages is a daunting task. I think Jean Baker did it brilliantly. Other books put in way too many personal details, taking away from the important story of the politician and leader, and others put in all the personal details ...more
Andy Miller
Jul 23, 2012 rated it really liked it
This was a thoughtful, well written biography of James Buchanan that focuses on his Presidency, the four years immediately preceding the civil war. The author dispels many of the myths of the time, one being that the political debate was about state's rights and not slavery. Of course, the South's political efforts, with Buchanan's support, in the 1850's were against state's rights, instead they for a national "right to slavery" that would trump efforts by northern states to thwart slavery even ...more
May 06, 2013 rated it liked it

“James Buchanan“ is Jean Baker’s 2004 addition to The American Presidents Series. Baker is a history professor at Goucher College in Maryland where she previously received an undergraduate degree. She earned a Masters and PhD at Johns Hopkins and has written several books, the best known being “Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography.”

As the fifth book from The American Presidents Series I’ve read so far, “James Buchanan” meets or exceeds most of my expectations
Americans have conveniently misled themselves about the presidency of James Buchanan, preferring to classify him as indecisive and inactive. According to historian Samuel Eliot Morison, “He prayed, and frittered and did nothing.” In fact Buchanan’s failing during the crisis over the Union was not inactivity, but rather his partiality for the South, a favoritism that bordered on disloyalty in an officer pledged to defend all the United States. He was that most dangerous of chief executives, a ...more
Jan 16, 2016 rated it really liked it
An excellent short biography of our worst President. Buchanan saw that slavery was the great issue that could divide or even destroy the Union, but rather than resolving the problem in a way that aligned American practices and institutions with its founding principles, Buchanan just wanted the issue to go away. Even before he took his oath of office he intervened in the Dred Scott case, causing it to be issued in a stronger form than had been likely and with the support of six justices, ...more
Judy Baker
Jan 20, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: biography, history
James Buchanan consistently is rated as one of the worst of the American presidents. Jean Baker in her biography of the man shares that view: the focus of her book is to identify how a man who had Buchanan's qualifications and experience in the political realm could fail so miserably. James Buchanan was an experienced politician of uncertain sexual orientation, who seems to have identified himself with the aristocratic southern slave owner. She notes that his stubbornness, arrogance, and ...more
Elaine Nelson
Nov 14, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, non-fiction
I picked this up after reading a blog entry that claimed that Bush couldn't be called the worst president ever as long as there was Buchanan.

And I think the guy had a point, although it may be that only the existence of the slavery problem made that so. (Ie, a problem so huge that it was already tearing the country in two before Buchanan ever got there; except for 9/11, Bush seems to have manufactured all this sh*t himself.)

Because otherwise, the failings of the 2 administrations feel quite
William  Shep
Dec 19, 2011 rated it liked it
Another excellent contribution to this presidential series, with Goucher College historian Jean Baker a good choice to write this volume. She covers all the basics about this relatively unknown president, the only one from my native Pennsylvania, and rightly argues that his failure in office was not due to incompetence (the common perception) but rather due to his wrong headed and treasonous devotion to the south. Buchanan was not the only Doughface president, that is one who hailed from the ...more
Miles Smith
Sep 21, 2017 rated it really liked it
This is an exceptional biography that I highly recommend. Baker provides a clear indictment of the basic failures of Buchanan as a politicians, until she gets to the Secession Crisis. Her nationalism, prejudice against the South, and constant tendency to anthropomorphize the Federal Union into a "nation" with a "soul" and a romanticized "presence" detract from an otherwise good biography. There are good reasons to criticize Buchanan, but his unwillingness to start a war remains, in this reader's ...more
Louis Picone
May 26, 2015 rated it really liked it
I opened this book with the popular belief that Buchanan's presidency was a failure because he did nothing to stop the dissolution of the Union. What I learned was that he was much more pro-Southern than I understood (surprising since he was a Pennsylvanian) and his policies contributed to Southern secession, leaving Lincoln a much bigger mess than he should have inherited. I only knocked the book down from 5 to 4 stars because I found the author was a little petty with Buchanan's appearance and ...more
Oct 02, 2017 rated it really liked it
I was pleasantly surprised by this book. I was expecting an average biography of one of America's most inept Presidents, but this is a thoroughly researched and well-written book that shows Buchanan as an activist President who used his authority to please the South whenever he could and, in, effect helped bring about the Civil War. Jean Baker's writing style was enjoyable; she provides a narrative with a good balance between Buchanan's personal background, his personality, and his political ...more
Jennifer Daniel
Feb 05, 2014 rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fiction
A pretty dry read on a pretty terrible president. Buchanan came into office with a wealth of experience in a vast variety of political positions he had held. Then he basicly stood by and did nothing about the impending sessesion of the southern states. It makes you wonder if we had a stronger 15th president, could the Civil War been avoided? Honestly, I was more interested in his possible homosexuality which was briefly touched on. I'm pretty sure he was our first gay president. In the words of ...more
Alex Robinson
Aug 04, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: bio, history
Another good entry in this series of short presidential biographies, this one on the much maligned James Buchanan. There's a tendency to view Buchanan as a doddering, indecisive Jimmy Carter figure but this book argues that this was not the case, that Buchanan's actions (his blinding devotion to the South, doing nothing to stop the Confederacy prepare for treason, etc) actively set the stage for the Civil War. Worse than Nixon!
Vicki Gibson
At last, I have come to the end of my wandering through the metaphorical desert of US presidents from Martin Van Buren to James Buchanan, having finally reached the promised land of Abraham Lincoln.

As with all of the books in The American Presidents series, this 192-page volume is an efficiently told biography. It has an exceptionally good Afterword which attempts to answer the question of why such an experienced and intelligent politician failed so miserably as president. On that point, there
David Anthony Sam
Feb 18, 2013 rated it really liked it
An excellent, brief biography of the worst president in US history, and nearly a traitor at that.
robin friedman
Sep 15, 2018 rated it it was amazing
James Buchanan In The American Presidents Series

About three miles north of the White House in Washington, D.C. there is a beautiful park known as Meridian Hill Park. Among other things, the park features a large memorial to the 15th president of the United States, James Buchanan. The Memorial was approved by Congress in 1918 but not built until 1930 after substantial controversy. The memorial is composed of bronze and granite with Buchanan at the center an the inscription "The incorruptible
I am sad that the only president from Pennsylvania is so poorly regarded. James Buchanan has long topped the worst president lists and was expecting something malicious to be revealed in his biography. Turns out, it was his inaction and attempt to keep the peace instead of standing up for what is right that had gotten him so prominently featured on the worst in history lists. This should be a lesson to all of us.
I lived a mile from Wheatland and have never toured the home. I plan to remedy that
Dec 21, 2018 rated it liked it
A decent overview of an awful president. The Civil War was likely inevitable, but Buchanan's utter lack of vision and leadership (and extreme pro-Southernism) led to the disintegration of our nation. Thank the lord for Honest Abe.
Apr 11, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: president-bios, 2018
Only bachelor President. Interesting to read about his role in the beginning of the civil war.
Frank Theising
Oct 24, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: bio-presidents
Buchanan was the most experienced man ever to enter the presidency. He served in the PA state legislature, was 5x congressman, senator, Secretary of State, and ambassador to Russia and England. At a time of great sectional strife, he was a northern Democrat with experience, a sense of history, and an above average chance of bridge the growing divide. Yet he proved an abysmal failure. Among the worst presidents in history, he left both his party and the county fractured and on the verge of civil ...more
Oct 29, 2019 rated it liked it
First of all what do I think about Buchanan’s failure as a president? Absolutely amazing, and very timely to see what the actions of this man did to bring on the Civil War. One person, in the wrong place, can do so much damage...

Next, what do I think about the book? Ms. Baker obviously feels very strongly about her subject, and while I tend to agree with her assessments of most things, her bias is evident in some of them, and must be taken with a grain of salt. It has prompted further inquiry on
Steven Peterson
Aug 17, 2009 rated it really liked it
James Buchanan came to the presidency with a wonderful resume. And he failed dismally. This brief biography, part of the well done "The American Presidents" series, tries to explain that disconnect. In the recurring introduction to each volume in the series that he edited, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. remarked that (Page xvii) "To succeed, presidents must not only have a port to seek but they must convince Congress and the electorate that it is a port worth seeking." And "there's the rub" for ...more
Oct 01, 2011 rated it liked it
A bit repetitive and not overly well-organized. Interesting at any rate to find out that Buchanan wasn't quite the doddering do-nothing I'd always assumed he was. The tone though unfortunately tends toward the schoolmarmish at times, with statements like "assumptions are always the heart of arrogance" (yes, and aphorisms are always the tools of the simplistic). Basically you have the problem that, while actions are over with instantly, historians drone on and on about them for centuries (and in ...more
Feb 02, 2017 rated it really liked it
I liked this author better than others in this series. Such an interesting man to read about, wish I had done so before this last election because of the many parallels with today. Buchanan was hands down one of the most qualified men (congressman, senator, ambassador, Secretary of State, politician and brilliantly successful attorney) in our history to run for office, yet, it seemed to have no bearing on his ability to lead. He was a horrible president with many of his actions making the cause ...more
Mar 14, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2017
I have wanted to read a biography about James Buchanan for a while. This was the perfect length, as I didn't want an extensive read. The book covers the 'worst American Presidency,' however, it definitely glossed over some very relevant history. That's were a more comprehensive history of the mid-19th century would be very helpful. Overall, I think this is a good introduction to the thinking of the 15th President, and how his actions and inaction led to the Civil War.
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Jean H. Baker is a professor of history at Goucher College. A graduate of Goucher College, she earned her doctorate at Johns Hopkins University.

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