Term in Office: 15th president, 1857-1861
Home State: Pennsylvania
It was my first big research paper for graduate school, and I was terrified out of my mind. We had to select a topic and address it from one of the plethora of historical theories and approaches we learned in twelve weeks from a brilliant, but ruthlessly exacting and humorless German taskmaster of a professor. My line of thought was this: we spend so much time studying epochal figures that I wanted to look closely at how unsuccessful people take part in the historical process. In short, I wanted to study failure, and like a moth to the flame, I was drawn to James Buchanan. I ended up throwing a complete hail mary, mixing local history through Pennsylvania boosterism of James Buchanan, with counterfactuals- that is, approaching history not through the lens of inevitability, but asking yourself “what if this alternative outcome happened?” I got a B+ on the paper, the only time in my life I was grateful for a grade that wasn’t an A.
Counterfactuals are a dangerous terrain for any historian, but in this instance, I think it is warranted. The case for James Buchanan’s failure as president seems self-evident. Buchanan, a cursory reading of history tells us, was the weak, vacillating figure who rung his hands as South Carolina seceded from the union, the Deep South seized federal property and Fort Sumter was besieged. Like the 75 years of bad scholarship on Neville Chamberlain and the dangers of “appeasement,” whatever that’s supposed to mean, the laziness of this account makes me a tiny bit suspect. Much of it holds up, but that doesn’t mean we can’t dissect it and pick it apart a bit.
Part of our national revulsion of Buchanan might be tied to the persistent issue of Old Buck’s sexuality. Look at the traditional barbs thrown at Buchanan: weak, vacillating, cowardly, untrustworthy, fussy, dandified– it can’t be a coincidence that these criticisms of James Buchanan have also been coded as effeminate or homosexual for a couple centuries. Think of how many of those negative and implicitly queer traits were also projected onto, say, Scar in The Lion King or King Candy from Wreck-It Ralph. In the same way, rumors of homosexuality dog England’s least successful kings: William II, Edward II, James I. If there was a radio drama of Buchanan’s administration, I guarantee his voice actor would give him a lisp. And gee, isn’t Buchanan’s betrothal to a girl from a rich family, and her mysterious death- possibly a suicide- before their marriage, suspicious? Bah. Can’t we get over this sort of childish innuendo? In Buchanan’s own public life, whispers about his preferences were bandied about easily, carelessly. Some have hypothesized he had a decades-long relationship with Alabama senator Rufus DeWane King (ironically elected vice-president under Franklin Pierce). They boarded together in Washington and were so inseparable that wags called them Miss Nancy and Aunt Fancy. Maybe James Buchanan preferred men. Maybe not. A chaste bachelorhood wasn’t uncommon in the 1800s. Neither was a bachelorhood that eschewed an inevitably unhappy marriage and pursued sexual fulfillment outside of matrimony- whether with men or with women- uncommon. Instead, the entire situation says much more about Buchanan’s detractors.
James Buchanan’s sexuality has no bearing on my conclusion that he was a manifestly failed president. Make no mistake about it. But the reasons he failed aren’t so easily coded as sissified or effeminate. Maybe the key to understanding James Buchanan is to see him not as a Pennsylvanian, but an Appalachian. True, Buchanan, the uptight, legalistic bachelor could not be further from stereotypes of rough, brawny Appalachian masculinity. But like a true Appalachian, his approach to politics was clannish and quasi-familial; party loyalty provided cover and protection, but also lent itself to petty, over-exaggerated feuds- think of the Hatfields and McCoys. I just put James Monroe down as my fourth greatest president because of his understated ability to unify, his ability to make the United States less provincial and balkanized, to squint his eyes to see the Magic-Eye picture of a nation, not a collection of states. Buchanan could not be a greater contrast.
On paper, at least, James Buchanan was one of our most qualified presidents. His long career began as a Federalist (!) clock-puncher who eventually hitched his star to the Jacksonian branch of what became the Democratic Party. He was a congressman, a senator, minister to Russia, minister to Britain, and Secretary of State. Equally relevant, he was a genuine force in state politics, and was responsible for moving the state of Pennsylvania, originally dominated by conscientious Quakers and sly bankers working out of Philadelphia into a state dominated by Appalachian interests in the state’s “Pennsyltucky” middle section. The denizens of this region were a rowdy, far more provincial bunch, and their rise to power turned a “doubtful state” into the northernmost Jacksonian stronghold. As the ringleader of these strategically important Pennsylvania Democrats, Buchanan flitted from office to office, not so much on excellence or skill- he was never outstanding at any job he ever had- but because of the Jacksonian spoils system that rewarded loyalty and going along to get along, at the expense of vision, conscience, and especially merit. It also made Buchanan hard-wired to see moral objections to slavery or its expansion as anything other than obstructionist, disruptive, and even disloyal, to the precarious and precise sectional balance that had been struck by decades of compromise.
He could not help but see other parties, other factions of his own party, and competing ideologies as domestic enemies. His cabinet, for example, is especially terrible. He didn’t consider, for a moment, throwing a bone at northern “conscience Democrats” who had moral qualms with slavery and left the party under Buchanan’s watch (such as Hannibal Hamlin, Lincoln’s first vice-president). He also shut out more moderate Democrats willing to see where the philosophy of popular sovereignty- letting the states themselves choose whether or not to keep slavery- led. In a cabinet littered with Southern sympathizers and tilted decidedly to Buchanan’s faction of the party, incompetence ran amuck. Lewis Cass, who had recently lost his Senate seat from Michigan and was in the early stages of senility, was Secretary of State. John Floyd is considered by some to be the worst cabinet official in U.S. history, and very probably funneled Union arms to seceding states, and later became a Confederate general. His Secretary of the Treasury left the cabinet to openly advocate for secession, and later joined the Confederate army as well.
This sort of nonsense was emblematic of larger problems throughout his presidency. Even before he took office, he collaborated with the Taney court as it prepared to issue its decision on Dred Scott. In essence, the decision recognized slave ownership as an inviolable form of property rights- a slave did not cease to become property on entering free territory. Technically, this meant that there were no ‘free states’ any longer; slaves could be held as property anywhere. For a North that increasingly found slavery un-Christian, and the expansion of slavery as both immoral and contrary to their economic interests, this decision could not be countenanced. Buchanan was friendly with most of the judges (who were, at this point, largely Jackson, Van Buren, and Pierce nominees), and learned of their decision in advance. Before the decision was handed down, Buchanan pledged in his Inaugural Address to carry the decision out fully, no matter what it was. As a result of this, Buchanan knowlingly blessed and committed himself to a Supreme Court decision that is widely considered the worst in U.S. history. This behind-the-scenes maneuvering, an affront to separation of powers, was an act of pre-presidential treason on par with Nixon sabotaging the Paris talks, or Reagan’s reported (and in my opinion, quite likely) intrigue to stave off the release of the hostages in Iran until after Carter had left office.
Consider as well his actions in admitting Kansas to the Union. Kansas, as we learned in our study of Pierce, was an unholy mess. Border ruffians regularly rode into slave-friendly Missouri, voted often, and beat up any free-soilers they happened to find. And violence was often reciprocated. As a result of all this, you had a pro-slavery Kansas territorial government recognized by the Pierce administration, but by few Kansans; this was called the Lecompton government. And you had a free-state government that the lion’s share of Kansans saw as legitimate, but Washington did not recognize. Buchanan’s blatant sympathies with the Lecompton faction hoped to cut off Republican and abolitionist strength in Kansas. Quite the opposite happened; Buchanan’s repeated decisions to undercut and undermine popular will in Kansas lead to the state becoming both a Republican stronghold and a symbol of resistance to the expansion of slavery.
Perhaps Buchanan might have kept this increasingly precarious balance intact, but that was no longer possible with the election of Abraham Lincoln, whose party intended to contain slavery to where it already existed. This triggered the departure of South Carolina, whose leaders would rather leave the Union that remain in it under a Lincoln administration. Buchanan dithered as secessionists seized federal property and arms. It wasn’t completely his fault, to be fair; Andrew Jackson threatened force to prevent South Carolina from seceding nearly thirty years earlier, but Congress did not give Buchanan the authority they once had given Jackson. Between Southerners who supported South Carolina and Northerners who wanted to wait out the clock for Lincoln, Buchanan’s base of support had eroded and no “force bill” was going to pass. The best he could do within his understanding of constitutional propriety was to order Fort Sumter, the lone outstanding federal property in South Carolina’s reach, to hold the line. As presidential blogger Big Mo put it, “by handing him Fort Sumter still intact, he left Lincoln with a huge ace to play- and play it, he did.”
Let’s go back to the counterfactuals, then. I wonder sometimes what would have happened if it had been Buchanan’s lot to face a foreign policy crisis, rather than a domestic crisis. If Buchanan had to act in a situation where the constitutional boundaries were clear, his geopolitical knowledge and long working relationships with old Washington hands could have been invaluable assets. He might have worked diligently, if uncreatively, in an emergency situation, in a manner more like George H. W. Bush than anyone. I tend to think, though, we might have seen a much more James Polk-like presidency: unapologetic expansion, but with an eye toward the Caribbean and Latin America. In fact, his cabinet bandied about the idea of making parts of Mexico into a protectorate during one especially unstable period, but domestic crises took their focus away from this intriguing (and probably wantonly illegal) possibility. Unfortunately, Buchanan inherited a toxic state of affairs involving constitutionally inchoate questions: can a state secede, and can the federal government use force to stop it? In the end, Buchanan was the luckless man in the hot seat as the entire unsustainable Jacksonian edifice of graft, compromise, and states’ rights came crashing down. He served in terrible circumstances, but his partisanship and almost fanatical belief that compromise and concession could placate two sides who no longer viewed the country’s two competing economic systems as a political problem, but as a spiritual contest- for the sectional crisis was also fought on theological grounds- on which the soul of the nation was at stake.
It feels strange, given that James Buchanan is ranked #39 out of 41 presidents, that I have to justify ranking him so highly! More often that not, Buchanan is placed as our very worst president. As Christopher Buckley jokes, “perhaps historians, the next time they convene to decide who was the absolute worst president ever, will also factor in his good intentions and move him up two notches so that his ghost can experience the giddy feeling of looking down — if only temporarily — on Warren Harding and Franklin Pierce.” I don’t think Buchanan’s intentions were particularly altruistic. His greatest debits are an inability or unwillingness to recognize the severity of Southern intransigence, and a lack of moral vision. He could be very inconsistent about his use of power, bending constitutionality in his dealings with Kansas and the Supreme Court and a minor rebellion in what would become Utah, but was curiously scrupulous about not exceeding his boundaries during South Carolina’s departure from the Union, perhaps the biggest crisis in the nation’s history up to that point. Incompetent and myopic, Old Buck still ranks third from the bottom. Two presidents had such catastrophically bad human rights records that I had to place them behind Buchanan.
It was only at the very end of his administration that Buchanan realized the gravity of his errors. In the final seconds of the fourth quarter, it dawned on him that he had been had, that the Southerners whose support he spent his career flattering and befriending cared more for extending slavery than for their country. He left his office a broken, bitter man, and most histories since have cast Buchanan as the perfect foil for Lincoln’s vision, commitment to victory, and capacity to forgive. Rutherford Hayes once declared, “he serves his party best, who serves his country best.” Buchanan, in sharp contrast, devoted his presidency to keeping a fractious Democratic Party together in an age of rabid abolitionism and pro-slavery fetish. In trying to keep his faction, and his party, in power, the nation itself was torn asunder.