Skip to main content
Updated date:

James Buchanan, The Worst President Ever

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher who writes about various subjects, including education and creative writing.

He looks overwhelmed.

He looks overwhelmed.

No Vindication

“History will vindicate my memory from every unjust aspersion.”

-- President James Buchanan

As President James Buchanan had predicted, history has judged him. Except, it’s not in the way he would’ve hoped. Historians, political scientists, pollsters and other scholars who rank presidents consistently place the 15th president of the United States at the bottom of the list.

This shouldn’t come as no surprise to anyone who studies U.S. history or politics. Today, Buchanan's lack of leadership qualities and inept governing has become legendary. Possibly his most positive and noteworthy accomplishments (and they're tough to come by) were being:

  • the only life-long bachelor to become president;
  • keeping the office warm until the more competent 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, took over.

In addition, rumors of his private life -- especially, his "friendship" with a high ranking politician have come to define the 15th president of the United States, rather than his short-comings in that office.

So how did this seasoned politician end up with such a poor record in the highest office of the land? Look no further than the events that led up to the Civil War.

At a time when real action was needed to deal with slavery and the unraveling of the nation, Buchanan did little to remedy the situation. In fact, the actions -- or lack of it -- made America's bloodiest war, a reality.

His Early Life

To understand how Buchanan became an unremarkable president, one has to look at his life before and after entering politics. He was born in Cove Gap, Pennsylvania on April 23, 1791 to a merchant/farmer father and a well-educated mother.

Like many born to well-to-do families of the time, James was given the opportunity to acquire an education at Old Stone Academy in the village of Mercersburg (they had moved there in 1797).

Later, he moved on to Dickinson College. The transition was not smooth, however. According to Biography.com, Buchanan was “nearly suspended for bad behavior before finally graduating in 1809.”

In defense of his presidency, Buchanan often stated that judiciary decisions and the constitution limited his ability to take action on the pressing issues of the time. In truth, his presidency was wrought by a series of blunders and inactivity at a contentious time in American History.

After graduating with honors, he moved to Lancaster to study law. He’d eventually be admitted to the bar in 1812. However, that fateful year would have something else in store for him.

The War of 1812 against the British erupted. Buchanan – a member of the Federalist party of the time -- opposed the war; however, when the British invaded Maryland, he volunteered to fight.

He became a member of the light dragoon unit as a private, and would serve in defense of Baltimore.

This switch in supporting the war, by all accounts, was unremarkable and not unusual for the time; however, it foreshadows the drastic changes in his political thinking that would eventually haunt him.

His Political Career and Personal Life

Buchanan entered politics at the tender age of 23. Fresh from war, he became a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. In 1821, he moved on from state politics to the national theater as a United States congressman. He served five consecutive terms until he was appointed as envoy to Russia by President Andrew Jackson.

In 1834, Buchanan returned to the U.S. and won a seat in the Senate. This time, the life-long Federalist was now a Democrat. He’d hold this position until 1845 when another president, James K. Polk, made him secretary of state.

Emboldened by his appointments by two presidents, Buchanan made his first attempt at the office in 1852. He lost to Franklin Pierce. The new president appointed him minister to England.

Up to this point, Buchanan was on the road to bigger and greater things. That would eventually happen in 1856. However, the ride to the top was wrought with pitfalls that not only put road blocks to his presidency, but exposed him for the person he really was. It would also be a precursor for his presidency.

During his rise to the top, Buchanan’s political posture and personal life started to come into focus. There were times where those within his own party had suspicions or doubts about his abilities as a leader.

in more happier (or somber?) times

in more happier (or somber?) times

About this time, several rumors circulated about his private life. First, in 1819, Buchanan was engaged to Anne Caroline Coleman. The engagement was plagued by rumors that he was a womanizer. This included a secret relationship with James Polk’s widow. Eventually, Coleman broke off the engagement and died soon after.

Later, and most scandalous of that time, rumors began to circulate about Buchanan's sexual preference. He was known to have shared his residency with Rufus King, the vice president to Franklin Pierce.

It was not unusual for two men to live in the same home or apartment and to share a bed during this time. However, both men were often described as being inseparable until King's death. In fact, Andrew Jackson used to refer to Buchanan and King as "Miss Nancy" and "Aunt Fancy", which were popular euphemisms for effeminate men during the 19th century.

Missteps and Passiveness

Another problem to surface was his passive nature. Buchanan was not an aggressive leader, as described by those that worked with him. President James K. Polk had this to say about his former cabinet member:

  • "Mr. Buchanan is an able man, but is in small matters without judgment and sometimes acts like an old maid."

In defense of his presidency, Buchanan often stated that judiciary decisions and the constitution limited his ability to take action on the pressing issues of the time. In truth, his presidency was wrought by a series of blunders and inactivity at a contentious time in American History.

Also, he believed States rights were more important than federal laws. This led to numerous conflicts with the House and Senate as well as members of the newly formed Republican party and factions within the Democratic party.

His problems started early during his inauguration. In his speech he believed the problematic question of slavery in the territories will be:

  • “...happily, a matter of but little practical importance.”

At the time of this comment, the U.S. Supreme Court was about to settle the matter “speedily and finally,” with the Dred Scott Decision. In addition, he proclaimed that he would:

  • “cheerfully submit whatever this may be.”

Two days later, the court made its decision. In one of the court's most infamous ruling, they asserted that the federal government (Congress in particular) had no constitutional power to forbid slavery in territories.

As a result of having his opinion made up on the matter, Buchanan cheerfully submitted to opening territories such as Kansas to slavery.

In his last State of the Union address, Buchanan mentioned that the breakaway states had no legal right to secede from the federal government, but the federal government had no right to prevent them from doing so

The cheerful decision had major consequences. It was felt in the divided territory in Kansas.

The situation had been dubbed Bleeding Kansas. After his blunder the strife there became more deadly. Since 1854, the Kansas territory had been divided by Free-Soil (anti-slavery) and pro-slavery settlers. Emboldened by the Dred Scot Decision, Buchanan sided with the pro-slavery settlers who had set up their own capital in the town of Lecompton. This group devised a state constitution, and was accepted by Buchanan’s administration.

The problem, however, was that most of the settlers were Free-Soilers. They boycotted it. And, despite passing the House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate rejected it. This included Northern members of Buchanan's own political party..

Slavery and state rights weren't the only issues he blundered:

  • He vetoed two important bills that would have helped a young country expand westward and support education and infrastructure (these bills, the Homestead Act and the Morrill Act would later be signed by Lincoln and become known as two of the most important bills signed during this era).
  • Failed to quell economic turmoil that would lead to the Panic of 1857, which sent the country into a recession.
  • Nearly went into a full-scale war with the Mormons in Utah in 1857. In this complicated and misguided matter, Buchanan attempted to replace Brigham Young as governor with the non-Mormon Alfred Cummings. The move was based on unsubstantiated reports that the Mormon settlers were rejecting federal rules. The matter was further complicated when the notice to replace the governor didn’t reach Young due to the removal of a mail contract with the territory during the Pierce administration. Although there was a two-week long retaliation by Young that led to destruction of wagon-trains, oxen and Army Property, the matter was settled peacefully.
Democratic Platform from 1856 - an anti-Buchanan editorial cartoon.

Democratic Platform from 1856 - an anti-Buchanan editorial cartoon.

Still, it was his mishandling of the slavery issue that led to his downfall. The situation was so bad that his own party refused to back his nomination for reelection.

Although destined to become a one-term president, Buchanan still had a chance to improve the situation. However, true to his form, Buchanan chose to do little. As a result, secession became a reality.

At best, he dismissed several Confederate sympathizers from his administration; however, he also lost support of some of his other cabinet members that sided with the North. They resigned, as well.

In his last State of the Union address, Buchanan mentioned that the breakaway states had no legal right to secede from the federal government, but the federal government had no right to prevent them from doing so (Biography.Com).

Soon afterward, South Carolina left the union in 1860. Later, six states left and formed the Confederate States of America before Buchanan’s last day in office. Although the reason sessionists stated for leaving had to do with Lincolin, an abolishionist, being elected president, Buchanon's words and actions enabled them to break away.

Buchanan’s War

Often, Lincoln's presidential election victory marked as the event that started the Civil War. In truth, the seeds of that conflict was planted long ago during the birth of the nation.

In addition, the events that eventually led to this war -- as well as the first shots fired in the war -- can be squarely put at the foot of Buchanan. In his presidency, he angered Northerners and got the support of the Southernors. That support wouldn't last.

The first time Confederates fired upon Fort Sumter happened during Buchanan’s administration, but it didn’t result in war. Confederate artillery opened on a civilian ship (Star of the West) that was believed to be carrying supplies to Union troops still stationed at the fort.

Infuriated, the Confederate government exposed a secret pact Buchanan had with the them. It turned out that Buchanan promised not to arm the fort. The appearance of the ship was an indication he broke that secret agreement. Thus, people in the south lost trust in him. The North didn’t look at him too kindly, either.

In addition, he didn’t retaliate to this event. The initial attack on the fort would happen later as Lincoln took office.

Over the years, many blamed Buchanan for the Civil War. In fact, some referred to the war as “Buchanan’s War.” Of course, Buchanan didn't see it that way.

After leaving office, Buchanan published his memoir (1868). When addressing the Civil War, he blamed abolitionists and Republicans for starting it. This, of course, came from the same man who believed history will vindicate him.

Legacy

There are some interesting facts about Buchanan. And, no doubt these little factoid could've been an interesting part of his legacy.

  • He was the only president with a military record to never become an officer.
  • He helped defend Baltimore during the War of 1812. This theater of operation saw the bombardment of Ft. Mc Henry. This particular battle was witnessed by Francis Scot Key who would immortalize it in his poem “The Star-Spangled Banner”.
  • Buchanan was the only president to be born in Pennsylvania

Much of it, however, doesn't do much to change any opinions about him. Even deep down, Buchanan knew his presidency was failure as he expressed in the following statement he made, addressing incoming President Lincolm on March 4, 1861

"If you are as happy in entering the White House as I shall feel on returning to Wheatland, you are a happy man.”

Buchanan left office in disgrace. He would be blamed for setting the stage for the Civil War. As a result of these accusations, he became ill and depressed. Eventually, after retiring to Lancaster he tried to defend his record, but failed to convince most people.

Eventually, he wrote a memoir that was largely ignored by the public. At the age of 77 in 1868, Buchanan caught a cold that would eventually become a serious respiratory disease. He would succumb to it on June 1st.

Since his presidency ended more than 150 years ago, Buchanan has been all but forgotten by the general public. He has been consistently ranked at or near the bottom of all the U.S. presidents.

Still, this relatively ineffective president managed to get some recognition. The Buchanan Memorial was dedicated in Washington D.C. in 1911 and completed in 1930. The Bronze and granite structure contains the following quote from, Jeremiah S. Black, a cabinet member of his administration:

“The incorruptible statesman whose walk was upon the mountain ranges of the law.”

Then again, his memorial is in the same town as Lincoln's, which is by far, one of the most visited places in the nation's capital. Even in death, Lincoln casts a shadow over Buchanan.


james-buchanan-the-worst-president-ever

References

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2014 Dean Traylor

Comments

Adam Palm on May 20, 2015:

Very interesting points made in this article. I question also if it wasn't the time period that had displayed him as an unreliable leader. The country at this time was obviously divided considering the National status on slavery. I feel like he tried to suppress the topic of slavery, where Abraham Lincoln had no choice but to correct the problem head on! Regarless, this article taught me plenty, thanks Dean!

Dean Traylor (author) from Southern California/Spokane, Washington (long story) on August 28, 2014:

um...what?

poorrichard1776 on May 08, 2014:

Was he really that bad? Buchanan, who, above all, believed in the sanctity of the law and of the U.S. Constitution, and believed that, right or wrong, the Constitution protected slavery while striving to keep a balance between the states regarding slavery. Just like Lincoln, Buchanan was against slavery and even purchased slaves bringing them to the North to free them. Lincoln never did. Lincoln, who is quoted as saying that if keeping the slaves as slaves would preserve the Union, he (Lincoln) would continue to do so. The Southern states began to secede after Lincoln's election, but before Lincoln's inauguration, and it could be argued that Lincoln's election and the attitude/policies of the Republican party and abolitionists began the process leading to civil war. Approximately 600,000 Americans dead, and Lincoln is considered the best American president, while Buchanan is considered the worse! Why is it that Buchanan is blamed for allowing the nation to enter civil war, when it was the election of Lincoln that caused it? Buchanan's policy and strategy prevented the Civil War, yet he is labeled as the worse American president. I wish someone would explain why.

Related Articles