History Podcasts

The Buchanan Cabinet

The Buchanan Cabinet

James Buchanan

James Buchanan, the 15th President of the United States (1857-1861), served immediately prior to the American Civil War. He remains the only President to be elected from Pennsylvania and to remain a lifelong bachelor.

Tall, stately, stiffly formal in the high stock he wore around his jowls, James Buchanan was the only President who never married.

Presiding over a rapidly dividing Nation, Buchanan grasped inadequately the political realities of the time. Relying on constitutional doctrines to close the widening rift over slavery, he failed to understand that the North would not accept constitutional arguments which favored the South. Nor could he realize how sectionalism had realigned political parties: the Democrats split the Whigs were destroyed, giving rise to the Republicans.

Born into a well-to-do Pennsylvania family in 1791, Buchanan, a graduate of Dickinson College, was gifted as a debater and learned in the law.

He was elected five times to the House of Representatives then, after an interlude as Minister to Russia, served for a decade in the Senate. He became Polk’s Secretary of State and Pierce’s Minister to Great Britain. Service abroad helped to bring him the Democratic nomination in 1856 because it had exempted him from involvement in bitter domestic controversies.

As President-elect, Buchanan thought the crisis would disappear if he maintained a sectional balance in his appointments and could persuade the people to accept constitutional law as the Supreme Court interpreted it. The Court was considering the legality of restricting slavery in the territories, and two justices hinted to Buchanan what the decision would be.

Thus, in his Inaugural the President referred to the territorial question as “happily, a matter of but little practical importance” since the Supreme Court was about to settle it “speedily and finally.”

Two days later Chief Justice Roger B. Taney delivered the Dred Scott decision, asserting that Congress had no constitutional power to deprive persons of their property rights in slaves in the territories. Southerners were delighted, but the decision created a furor in the North.

Buchanan decided to end the troubles in Kansas by urging the admission of the territory as a slave state. Although he directed his Presidential authority to this goal, he further angered the Republicans and alienated members of his own party. Kansas remained a territory.

When Republicans won a plurality in the House in 1858, every significant bill they passed fell before southern votes in the Senate or a Presidential veto. The Federal Government reached a stalemate.

Sectional strife rose to such a pitch in 1860 that the Democratic Party split into northern and southern wings, each nominating its own candidate for the Presidency. Consequently, when the Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln, it was a foregone conclusion that he would be elected even though his name appeared on no southern ballot. Rather than accept a Republican administration, the southern “fire-eaters” advocated secession.

President Buchanan, dismayed and hesitant, denied the legal right of states to secede but held that the Federal Government legally could not prevent them. He hoped for compromise, but secessionist leaders did not want compromise.

Then Buchanan took a more militant tack. As several Cabinet members resigned, he appointed northerners, and sent the Star of the West to carry reinforcements to Fort Sumter. On January 9, 1861, the vessel was far away.

Buchanan reverted to a policy of inactivity that continued until he left office. In March 1861 he retired to his Pennsylvania home Wheatland–where he died seven years later–leaving his successor to resolve the frightful issue facing the Nation.

The Presidential biographies on WhiteHouse.gov are from “The Presidents of the United States of America,” by Frank Freidel and Hugh Sidey. Copyright 2006 by the White House Historical Association.

Learn more about James Buchanan’s niece who served as First Lady, Harriet Lane.

Eric Foner Perceives Beyond the Truth

(December 27, 2016) In this lecture Columbia University’s history professor Eric Foner condemns Pennsylvania’s James Buchanan as “perhaps the worst President in American history.” The professor begins by explaining that Buchanan was immediately under the thumb of Southern politicians. He points to the President’s initial cabinet selections as compelling evidence that Southerners dominated the administration from the beginning.

As the table above illustrates, citizens of states that voted for Buchanan got five out of seven cabinet posts. Four of the five were Southerners. However, Foner’s claim that Buchanan’s initial cabinet alone is sufficient verification that Southerners controlled him from the start is dubious. In the politics of the era cabinet posts were commonly awarded to residents of states that supported the winning Presidential candidate.

That practice did not change when Lincoln was elected. Five of his seven cabinet posts also went to men who lived in states that Lincoln carried in the election. Two of Lincoln’s cabinet members were from slave states, even though slave states were almost half of all sates at the time.

Some observers will, no doubt, argue that Lincoln’s choices were narrower than Buchanan’s because eleven Southern states seceded from the Union. Only seven, however, seceded before Lincoln took office. More importantly, Lincoln’s list of candidates for cabinet posts had been settled more than a month before even the first state (South Carolina) seceded.

On the night after the November 6, 1860 election, Lincoln wrote-down a list of candidates for cabinet appointments. Six of the eight were appointed. The two that were not chosen were from New Jersey and Illinois, which were states where he received electoral votes. The seventh selection was Simon Cameron who bargained for a cabinet position at the earlier Republican nominating convention in exchange for committing Pennsylvania’s delegates to Lincoln (David Donald, 249 & 261).

On the night after the November 6, 1860 election, Lincoln wrote-down a list of candidates for cabinet positions. Six of the eight were appointed. The two that were not chosen were from New Jersey and Illinois, which were also states where Lincoln received electoral votes. The seventh selection was Simon Cameron who was to receive a cabinet appointment based upon a bargain to get Pennsylvania’s delegates committed to Lincoln at the earlier political convention where Lincoln won the Republican nomination. (David Donald, 249 & 261.)

Although Foner later gave other reasons in his lecture why he feels that Buchanan was a Southern sympathizer he also he also provided evidence that Buchanan was not. Nonetheless, the professor’s conclusion that Buchanan’s sectional sympathies were obvious from the start based only upon the initial cabinet selections fails to take into account the conventional political practices of the era.

James Buchanan

James Buchanan, 15th President 1857-1861, was unable to provide the leadership to resolve the crisis over the union leading up to to start of the Civil War.

In the summer of 1856 delegates to the Democratic convention meeting in Cincinnati nominated James Buchanan as their candidate for president. It was a popular choice, and in Buchanan&rsquos mind, an overdue honor from the party that the Pennsylvanian had long served in a number of capacities. In the customary manner of 19 th century elections Buchanan did not campaign in this period of American history any entreaties to the electorate, besides a few letters, local remarks or speeches by surrogates, were viewed as violations of the national understanding that public office was a gift conferred by the people through the exercise of their free will. Earlier Buchanan had pledged to support the party platform, though on the perplexing issue of slavery in the territories, he had never accepted the party&rsquos commitment to popular sovereignty&mdashthat is, the policy of the Illinois Senator Stephen Arnold Douglas that the people of a territory could decide for themselves whether to accept or prohibit slavery. Instead he embraced the pro-southern position that slaves were property and as such could be taken into the territories.

In this presidential year of sectional division when the dramatic caning of Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner in the Senate by a southern member of Congress ,Buchanan made known his view that the Union was in danger and that only by adhering to the United States Constitution could it be saved. He had already located the culprit responsible for the nation&rsquos political disharmony in the new Republican Party. As he wrote a Pennsylvania Democrat during the summer, &ldquothe Union is in danger and the people everywhere begin to know it. Black Republicans must be boldly assailed as disunionists and the charge must be reiterated again and again.&rdquo [1]

Months later, in the three-way presidential election that featured John Charles Frémont, the first Republican presidential candidate along with Millard Fillmore, the nominee of the Know Nothing or American Party, Buchanan was elected the fifteenth president of the United States. He won with an impressive forty-five percent of the popular vote and 174 Electoral College votes out of 296. By selecting James Buchanan Americans had chosen an experienced diplomat and popular Democrat. Indeed few politicians could match Buchanan&rsquos record of public service.

Born in Cove Gap, Franklin County, in southern Pennsylvania in 1791, Buchanan graduated from Dickinson College. He then moved to Lancaster where he studied law. After a brief period in a successful law practice, he ascended nearly seamlessly through a sequence of political victories in his home state. In the 1820s he served in the Pennsylvania legislature and in the 1830s and 1840s he was elected to five terms in the United States House of Representatives and two in the Senate. In fact in his long public career he was defeated only once in eleven attempts for legislative office, though his presidential ambitions took longer to achieve. Amid talk of an appointment to the Supreme Court, instead in 1845 President James Polk appointed Buchanan secretary of state. With Polk he oversaw the spectacular expansion of the nation after the Mexican-American War and the ratification of the Oregon Treaty. In 1852 he anticipated receiving his party&rsquos presidential nomination, only to be disappointed when the party chose Franklin Pierce.

When Pierce was elected, Buchanan accepted the position of minister to Great Britain, a position that removed him from any direct association with the controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. This act repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and enshrined the principle of popular sovereignty in those two territories. It was also the catalyst for the formation of the Republican Party, whose supporters refused to accept the extension of slavery into the territories. From London Buchanan watched the increasing animosity between northerners and southerners over the role of slavery in the territories and the issue of fugitive slaves in the Border States. By this time many Americans knew Buchanan by his nickname &ldquoOld Public Functionary,&rdquo a man depicted as an old man (he was 65 when he was elected president) who had lived nearly his entire professional life in both elected and appointed public office. His friends preferred to call him &ldquoOld Buck.&rdquo

As he reached the pinnacle of his ambitions, Buchanan intended to solve the growing friction between North and South. A loyal member of the Democratic Party, he represented one of the few remaining national institutions in the United States in the 1850s. Churches had already split into northern and southern factions angry rhetoric inflamed the halls of Congress. Buchanan endlessly repeated his support for the Union and the Constitution, believing his Republican opponents to be a sectional faction of zealots. Yet when Buchanan turned the nation over to his Republican successor, Abraham Lincoln, he left in disgrace, condemned by Republicans, vilified by northern Democrats and even dismissed by the southerners whom he had tried to placate and whose personal affection as a lonely bachelor he had sought. Like his contemporaries, modern historians consistently place James Buchanan among the least successful presidents. Thus the central question of Buchanan&rsquos administration is why did such a well-meaning and experienced public figure fail so miserably? Were the problems over slavery insurmountable? And more appropriately to an evaluation of his administration, did he contribute to the disruption of the Union and to the creation of the Confederacy?

In his long inaugural address delivered in March 1857, Buchanan offered solutions to the growing divisions in the nation. First, Congress had no legitimate role in the decisions that territories made about slavery only the will of the people at the moment of achieving statehood could prohibit the right of individuals to settle in any territory with their private property in slaves. Some southerners, such as Jefferson Davis, were extending this position to argue that slavery followed the flag and must be safeguarded by the federal government. Personally Buchanan deplored slavery but given his conservatism and pronounced sympathy for the South, he argued that the &ldquosacred right of each individual (by which he meant white males) must be preserved.&rdquo The agitation of the issue by northern abolitionists and their surrogates the Republican Party produced &ldquogreat evils to the master, the slave and to the whole country.&rdquo [2]

Buchanan&rsquos solution rested with his expectation that the courts would solve this mid-19 th century dilemma dividing Americans. Like most politicians he was well aware of the judicial case involving the status of Dred Scott, a Missouri slave who had lived in free territory and now sought his liberty on that basis. For the new president the case seemed an opportunity to end forever the controversial slave issue and to achieve what he so sincerely sought: national harmony. That achieved, he could turn his attention to the incorporation of new territory in Mexico and Cuba, which as a fervent supporter and architect of Manifest Destiny, would be his presidential legacy. In fact even as president &ndashelect, he had inquired among the judiciary about the status of the case and, in an inappropriate intrusion that might lead to impeachment today, he had prodded his friend Robert Grier, a Supreme Court justice from Pennsylvania, to render a comprehensive decision that went beyond the particulars of Dred Scott&rsquos circumstances.

Indeed the president already knew the intricacies of the Dred Scott decision that was handed down two days after his inauguration no black in the United States had any rights that the white man was bound to protect. Hence Dred Scott could not sue for his freedom. Beyond the specifics of Scott&rsquos case, as human property protected by the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment, slavery now could not be prohibited before statehood. Thereby slavery was nationalized. Even northern Democrats were troubled by the future of a republic founded on freedom and liberty that, by virtue of its highest court and encouraged by its new president, so blatantly promoted the enslavement of human beings.

Although Buchanan expected otherwise, in fact the Dred Scott decision only heightened the tension between the North and South. But in Washington Buchanan found support for his views from his cabinet that met every afternoon for several hours, save for Sunday. In the early months of his administration these men served as a sounding board for his positions, offering their own pro-southern views to the man they dubbed &ldquothe Squire.&rdquo Later with some new additions in the crisis-filled last days of his administration, the president sought emotional support from a group that served as family to a beleaguered bachelor.

Before his inauguration, of seven members he chose four officers from the South and three northerners who supported southern interests, the latter despised as &ldquodoughfaces&rdquo for their malleable, sectional prejudices. All four of the southerners had been at one time or another, large slave-owners, and Buchanan&rsquos favorite, Secretary of the Treasury Howell Cobb of Georgia, had once owned over one thousand slaves. Only one of the cabinet&rsquos officers came from the growing population west of the Appalachians, and there were no northern Democrats who followed the principles of popular sovereignty popularized by Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas. This president wanted no team of rivals, no alternative voices.

Indeed his lax oversight of the cabinet led to a culture of corruption that ended in an embarrassing congressional investigation and Buchanan&rsquos near impeachment. Army forts were sold to private interests and Interior Department funds embezzled. But even more destructively, in the case of Secretary of War John Buchanan Floyd, significant shipments of arms were sent south in anticipation of civil war. So much was diverted to the South that Confederate military commanders later acknowledged Floyd&rsquos contributions to their effectiveness.

Almost immediately Buchanan confronted the first great crisis of his administration: what to do about Kansas. By the time he assumed the presidency there were already two competing territorial governments in an area to be organized under the Kansas-Nebraska Act which mandated that the people of the territory determine the fate of slavery. One territorial government with a proslavery legislature and judiciary was now located in a small town along the Kaw River called Lecompton. The other was the free-state government located in Topeka, three miles to the west. Both groups had moved aggressively to create governments, adopting constitutions and electing a legislature. Yet many settlers, indifferent to slavery, cared more about their prospects of settling on fertile land, while others wanted to ensure that they did not compete with slave labor.

By law the president chose the territory&rsquos governor, but when his choice Governor Robert John Walker threw out the obviously inflated returns from several counties and resisted the claims of the Lecompton government, Buchanan removed him. Nor did the president listen to the entreaties of Kansans who supported by clear majorities the free- state government. He refused to listen to the three former territorial governors, or to most of the northern wing of the Democratic Party, especially Stephen Douglas, who encouraged him to reject the Lecompton constitution. And he never listened to the Republicans whom he despised. Instead he made the vote on the proslavery Lecompton constitution a party vote, thereby increasing the prospects of a divided Democratic party.

By 1860, the last full year of his presidency, Buchanan faced an increasingly aggressive South that had been emboldened by his clear partiality toward its interests. And as southerners began the process of taking over coastal forts Buchanan did nothing. He was further undermined when at his party&rsquos presidential nominating convention in Charleston, South Carolina Democrats divided over their policies toward slavery in the territories and eventually nominated two candidates. Of course Buchanan supported the southern wing of the party led by John Cabell Breckinridge of Kentucky, which now demanded that the federal government protect slavery in the territories and enact a federal slave code. And when Lincoln won both the popular vote and the Electoral College vote in this four-candidate election, Buchanan continued to espouse his policy of the equality of states, code-words for the property rights of southern slave-owners.

Immediately after Lincoln&rsquos election Buchanan faced the most personally wrenching crisis of his public life when southerners who had threatened secession for years actually began the process of destroying the Union. General-in-Chief Winfield Scott promptly urged the immediate garrisoning of federal forts with sufficient troops to prevent a surprise attack. But Buchanan did nothing as, like dominoes, seven southern states seceded in the winter of 1860-1861. Buchanan believed that while secession was illegal, any coercion by the federal government was also illegal&mdasha view that led Senator William Henry Seward to observe that what Buchanan espoused was that no state had a right to secede unless it wanted to and the government must save the Union unless somebody opposed it. Meanwhile southern members of his cabinet abandoned the president and went home to what became in February 1861 a new government, the Confederate States of America.

Soon the controversy over federal authority focused on the forts in South Carolina&rsquos Charleston Harbor. The Union commander there, Major Robert Anderson, had moved his forces from the indefensible Fort Moultrie located on a peninsula protected only by high sand dunes from an increasingly threatening South Carolina militia. On Christmas night 1860 Anderson took his sixty soldiers to Fort Sumter, a far more defensible location in Charleston Harbor. But the president, in the midst of negotiations with commissioners from the south, initially intended to send Anderson back to Fort Moultrie, an effective surrender given the ease with which South Carolinian forces could overrun that installation. Such a policy was as well an implicit recognition that the Union would not contest the southern takeover of national property. Buchanan insisted that Anderson had exceeded his orders, but when Anderson&rsquos orders were later produced by the War Department, the commander had indeed been authorized to locate his force in the most defensible of the Charleston forts, if he had &ldquotangible evidence&rdquo of impending hostilities. That more defensible choice clearly was Fort Sumter. Meanwhile the president offered a truce based on the passage by Congress of a constitutional amendment guaranteeing slavery in the states and territories and the enforcement of the rights of southerners to reclaim their escaped slaves in the North. In all Buchanan&rsquos plans the rest of the United States and especially the Republicans (though they had won the recent election) must make adjustments to southern demands.

By this time Buchanan&rsquos cabinet, without the southerners who had left for the Confederacy, included three northern Unionists. These men&mdashJeremiah Sullivan Black, Edwin McMasters Stanton, and Joseph Holt informed the president that to order Anderson back to Moultrie was treason. They would resign if Buchanan did not change his plans. The president, in an unusual gesture, asked his Secretary of State Black--who believed that no American would support Buchanan&rsquos surrender of federal property and forces--to write a more forceful statement of federal authority over its installations. Yet keeping the fort was a minimal gesture from the point of view of asserting the power of the federal government. What Buchanan did not do in the perilous days of the secession winter of 1860-1861 is worth noting: he did not order 16,000 US Army troops back from their western posts. He did not reinforce any of the offshore forts.

He did not challenge South Carolinians as President Andrew Jackson had done in his confrontation with that state in the 1830s. Consequently, empowered by the abandonment of any authority over them, the future Confederacy gained in confidence, organization and supplies. And while in January the president did agree to an abortive effort to send men and supplies to Anderson, he never authorized Anderson to respond with covering fire when that expedition reached Charleston Harbor and was fired upon. Hence when the batteries in Charleston opened fire&mdasha clear act of war&mdashthe expedition simply turned around and moved out to sea without delivering its troops or supplies. And so the surrender of Fort Sumter awaited Lincoln&rsquos administration when an attack on the flag brought a different response.

Finally in March the 120 days of Buchanan&rsquos lame duck presidency ended, and the new Republican President Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated. Anticipating a possible Confederate coup d&rsquoétat General Winfield Scott asked Buchanan to order extra troops into Washington to preserve the peace during Lincoln&rsquos inauguration. This the outgoing president refused. On the ride back from the inauguration Buchanan famously turned to his successor and indicated that if Lincoln was as happy entering the White House (as indeed Buchanan had been four years earlier) as Buchanan was leaving for his beloved home Wheatland in Lancaster, then Lincoln was a happy man. Once in retirement Buchanan supported the Union, opposed Lincoln&rsquos Emancipation Proclamation, and devoted himself to writing a long exculpatory version of his administration entitled Mr. Buchanan&rsquos Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion. [3]

Some historians have classified Buchanan as indecisive others have argued that he was controlled by his pro-southern cabinet, and still others that he was too old to take command of the government during the secession winter.

In fact Buchanan&rsquos 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 executive officer who had sworn an oath to protect and defend the flag of all the United States. By any measure Buchanan appeased the South he allowed his cabinet officers to send weapons to the South he did everything possible to try to assure that Kansas became a slave state he allowed southerners to gain time and confidence so that when the war started the North faced a powerful enemy.

Overall Buchanan was a stubborn ideologue whose principles held no room for compromise. He went beyond normal partisan antagonism to castigate the Republicans, a legitimate political party, as disloyal and he persistently underestimated the popularity of their views. His intransigence split his own Democratic Party as he continued to hold the North responsible for the sectional disruption. When South Carolina seceded in December, he did nothing and such appeasement only encouraged the Confederacy, even though American history displayed precedents of executives calling out the militia to confront an insurrection in Washington&rsquos, Jackson&rsquos, Taylor&rsquos and Fillmore&rsquos administrations.

Clearly as a leader Buchanan failed to understand the changing attitudes of most Americans. He failed to understand the nation, the result of a stubborn overconfidence that emanated from a combination of his character, pro-southern sympathies and a lifetime spent in partisan political roles.


Though dashingly handsome by the standards of the day (more than one source has called him the only real Hunk-in-Chief), Pierce was cursed from the moment he defeated his whale of a rival, Winfield Scott, in the 1852 election. On January 6, 1853, a few months before Inauguration day, Pierce and his family were involved in a train accident near Andover, Massachusetts, one in which the only fatality happened to be Pierces beloved son, 11-year-old Benjamin. From that moment on, Pierce spent the remainder of his days drinking, sighing heavily, and being routinely snubbed by his psychotic wife, Jane, who wandered the White House screaming obscenities. Between bouts of ham-fisted drunkenness and blind rage, Pierce summarily ignored the impending slavery crisis and growing clouds of war, dismissing Bleeding Kansas as a mere trifle that would somehow work itself out. Just leave me the fuck out of it, he is rumored to have grunted. His legacy is further hampered by having appointed full-tilt traitor Jefferson Davis to head the War Department. His Vice President, Jimmy Buchanans fabulously tippy-toed lover William Rufus King, had the good sense to drop dead fifteen minutes into the whole stinking mess though, as was custom, no one bothered to suggest a replacement.

James Buchanan, 15 th President, 1857-1861

No wonder the gay lobby has been trying to secure
Lincoln in its rainbow camp these past few years, what with this disaster standing as the one and only homosexual ever to hold the nations top job. If you suspect rumor and innuendo to be behind historys judgment, I suggest a cursory reading of the Buchanan/King letters, most of which read like Penthouse Forum, only with a great deal of wooing standing in for golden showers. Still, few doubt the real meaning behind the eras Lancaster Steamer. Besides winking that delightfully wonkish eyeball in the direction of Washingtons most eligible bachelors, Bucky, as he was known to the K Street bathhouse elite, spent his torturous four years pretending the nation was continually on the cusp of a new birth of freedom, except, of course, for that pesky slavery thing. From the Dred Scott case to the Panic of 1857, Buchanan was on the wrong side of history in every way that counts, up to and including his failure to wipe the scourge of Mormonism from the fucking globe when he had the means and justification to do so. As stated, James had a wild affair with W.R. King, Pierces running mate, who died soon after taking office. According to legend, Buchanan was inconsolable, though he managed to sneak into the VPs closet from time to time in later years to sniff his topcoat.

Woodrow Wilson, 28 th President, 1913-1921

Ignore his landmark first term, complete with more Progressive reforms than even the presumed standard-bearer, Theodore Roosevelt, can claim as his own. From 1915 on, Woody, at heart an old fashioned minister from the humorless, tight-lipped, self-righteous school of messianic ambition, bathed, dined, and slept with every manner of munitions manufacturer, banker, and war monger to ensure the countrys leadership in creating Nazi Germany. In addition to being solely responsible for no fewer than 75 million deaths during the middle part of the 20 th century, Wilson used the mandate of a second term to deny civil rights, empower J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI (then in its infancy), jail dissenters, and turn the country over to the merchants of death a vice-like grip that has, to this day, never relented. Wilsons ego, perhaps rivaled only by LBJs, was so colossal and warped that even after suffering a near-fatal stroke, he refused to resign, spending his final years in bed, curtains drawn,while handing over his duties to his young, sex-obsessed second wife, Edith, whom he married while attending the funeral of his first wife, Ellen. Other than ruining the world and wiping his ass daily with a copy of the Constitution secured from the National Archives, Woodyconfused Birth of a Nation for a documentary and ordered dozens of black men lynched as a precaution.

Warren G. Harding, 29 th President, 1921-1923

Some might think that spending a little over two years drinking, screwing, and holding round-the-clock poker tournaments constitutes a successful presidency, but Harding went and fucked it all up by dying too soon to really embarrass himself. Though surrounding himself with crooks, liars, thieves, and barbarians, Warren himself stood above the din, the first truly dimwitted chief executive who could be excused with plausible deniability. Whats more, he knew it. Whether banging cocktail waitresses andflappers in Oval Office closets, sending hush money to a slew of past andpresent lovers,or being present while prostitutes were being murdered at wild parties, Harding presided over a delightful mess of an abbreviated term, having the decency to die of a heart attack in
San Francisco just two years in. History has made its judgment, but true believers still know he was felled by his hysterical wife, Florence, the real power behind the throne, who saw trouble ahead and couldnt bear to watch him impeached. Still, despite the scandals and incompetence, Harding damn near stayed off this list for being one of the chosen few tocome within a hair ofmurdering a member of his own cabinet, one Charles Forbes, after choking the bastard for stealing a fortune from the Veterans Bureau. Harding was also known for his matinee idol good looks, upbeat personality, and rumored Negro ancestry, best typified by his garbled syntax.

Andrew Johnson, 17 th President, 1865-1869

Illiterate well into adulthood, the first President Johnson also has the distinction of being the only man to send the usually affable Abraham Lincoln into a shit-faced rage after showing up drunk to his own Inauguration as Vice President. Having escaped assassination by being the one guy to draw the coward of the conspiracy, Johnson used his single term to alienate everyone around him, including his own wife, servants, cabinet,and coachman. So irredeemably racist as to give Nathan Bedford Forrest pause, Andy worked tirelessly to veto each and every attempted reform by the Republicans, only to watch his work go up in the flames of the dreaded override. He escaped removal from office by a single vote, and though the charges were trumped up at best, history has proven that he alone warranted impeachment simply for being an asshole. He broke his promise of holding the treasonous South accountable and, despite appearing progressive in the early days, ending up doing more to destroy Reconstruction than the shiftless freedmen who cluttered up Congress with the cries of raped white maidens and clatter of stripped chicken bones. Dumber than a half-empty box of rusty nails, Johnson venerated the farmer beyond all reason, believing the simple man to be the nations future. As such, he favored states rights, white supremacy, and swift defeat of the 14 th Amendment. To his credit, he tried to restore his image with a national tour, but quickly gave up and slept away his remaining days broken, humiliated, and still achingly stupid. He is buried with a copy of the Constitution, presumably to serve as an eternal reminder of what he opposed every waking second of his sad life.

In “Defense” of James Buchanan

Journalists, pundits, the public, and even some scholars love to celebrate James Polk as a “man of destiny,” successful president, “a political chess master,” and an “expansionist leader” with a “republican vision” who, through “extraordinary diligence,” worked to “spread the blessings of American democracy.”[1] James Buchanan, on the other hand, is roundly condemned as the “worst” president and an example of “political ineptitude,” most recently in a post on Muster.[2] These judgments, I believe, are misleading and inaccurate. Polk was indeed successful in achieving the majority of his goals as chief executive, but so was Buchanan. The fact that secession occurred during his administration should not cloud our assessment of his political skills and ability to accomplish his aims. If we judge him a failure because his actions led directly to the Civil War, then we must judge Polk likewise, as his invasion of Mexico was arguably the match that set the house aflame. Consider this blog post, then, a ‘defense’ of Buchanan’s political acumen and success (though certainly not an endorsement of his distasteful policies).

Before we can even get to his administration, we need to appreciate the fact that Buchanan and his operatives wrested the 1856 Democratic nomination from the hands of Stephen Douglas, the architect of the Appeasement of 1850, the author of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the most widely-admired Northern Democrat of the decade. Such a feat was no accident. Months ahead of the Democratic national nominating convention in Cincinnati, Buchanan worked to maintain the allegiance of the slave states, alienate Douglas from partisan leaders, and directed state-level operations to guarantee that key Northern states, such as Indiana, would hold strong for “Old Buck” despite large pro-Douglas majorities. At the convention, Buchanan operated through his top advisers Jesse Bright of Indiana and John Slidell of Louisiana to ensure that critical committees were dominated by “Buchaneers,” that the traditional Two-Thirds Rule (which benefitted the staunchly pro-slavery Buchanan) was renewed, and that states with divided delegations, like New York, remained inert. Douglas, despite his popularity, did not really stand a chance. Buchanan was many things, but politically inept was not one of them.

President James Buchanan. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

As president-elect, Buchanan moved quickly to assemble a cabinet that suited his needs and leadership style. In order for us to judge the effectiveness of his cabinet, we must consider his desires and designs. Yes, Buchanan’s cabinet was lackluster, full of pro-slavery cronies and mediocre minds. But that is exactly what the confident Buchanan wanted. He had spent a lifetime in public service, and he knew from experience how to run an administration and deal with Congress. He also knew exactly which policies he wanted to pursue. Thus, he did not want a “team of rivals” (as the inexperienced Lincoln needed) or an assemblage of great intellects (as Monroe had preferred). Buchanan’s selection of the incapacitated Lewis Cass for the State Department was especially deft, since the president-elect had extensive foreign policy experience and clear diplomatic goals. Instead of assembling capable administrators and trusted advisers, Old Buck, the tough partisan warrior and seasoned public servant, chose to use his cabinet appointments for patronage purposes. He sought to use his appointive power to heal the internal party divisions wrought by his predecessor Pierce (who bungled appointments so badly that he had a partisan revolt on his hands before he even took office). These were Buchanan’s priorities, and we historians must respect them as such.[3]

While he selected his cabinet, President-Elect Buchanan also worked behind the scenes to achieve a long-held personal and partisan goal: a U.S. Supreme Court ruling against black Americans and against Congressional authority over slavery. Buchanan, ever the skilled wire-puller, achieved exactly that with the infamous Dred Scott decision. Originally, Supreme Court justices were not inclined to issue a broad ruling on the legal status of the enslaved Missourian Dred Scott, but Buchanan, who had close personal and professional connections to several of the justices, exerted pressure of dubious legality and convinced the court to turn the Missouri case into a national edict on slavery and federal power. It was a major victory for the Slave Power, and an epic accomplishment for a man not yet even inaugurated.[4]

As president, Buchanan continued to achieve his goals: he reduced U.S. participation in the trans-Atlantic anti-slavery naval squadron forced Nicaragua to grant transit rights across the isthmus bullied Mexico into accepting U.S. occupation during times of civil disturbance sent nineteen warships with 200 guns to Paraguay to force acceptance of U.S. economic interests purged his Democratic Party of any lingering anti-slavery elements or moderate “Softs” prevented any federal action during the Panic of 1857 and forced the defiant Mormon community at the Great Salt Lake to recognize and accept U.S. authority. More famously, Buchanan, in an unprecedented exertion of executive influence, was able to push the fraudulent, pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution of Kansas through an uncooperative Congress full of anti-slavery Republicans and anti-Buchanan supporters of Stephen Douglas. Like the Dred Scott ruling, it was an epic accomplishment, though, unlike Dred Scott, one largely misunderstood or underappreciated by scholars. The president employed all manner of carrots and sticks to achieve his greatest victory, everything from cash bribes to patronage promises to political assassination to turning wives against their Congressional husbands. The fact that the constitution was quickly rejected by Kansans does not in any way diminish the magnitude of Buchanan’s achievement.[5]

Buchanan did not expect or plan on the “secession winter” of 1860 to 1861, and his failure to act in defense of the Union is rightly condemned by most historians. That should not change, however, how we see the rest of his administration, a single term in which he achieved monumental political victories and proved himself a wily politico, skilled strategist, and powerful executive. He and his supporters were enormously proud of their accomplishments, and Buchanan even penned an 1866 monograph vigorously defending and celebrating his actions.[6] Like Polk, he achieved most of his goals, served only one term, presided over a dramatic party split, and watched Democrats fail in the next presidential contest. If we are to judge the success or failure of an administration based solely on achievement of executive goals, then Buchanan should rank alongside Polk. If, however, we want to judge a president on the morality of their policies and their long-term impact on the health of the nation, then both Polk and Buchanan must be deemed rotten failures. We cannot have it both ways: Polk judged on his accomplishments, while Buchanan measured by morality. Similarly, we must recognize that the designation “worst” president is a moral, anachronistic one, and does not accurately reflect his achievements (no matter how distasteful they may be to us today).

[1] Robert W. Merry, A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010), 1-2, 224 Paul H. Bergeron, The Presidency of James K. Polk (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1987), 51 Sam W. Haynes, James K. Polk and the Expansionist Impulse (New York: Pearson, 2005), 211 Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2006), 579.

[2] “James Buchanan: Why is he considered America’s worst president?” Constitution Daily, http://blog.constitutioncenter.org/2014/04/james-buchanan-why-is-he-considered-americas-worst-president/ (accessed December 19, 2016) “Worst. President. Ever.” Politico. http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/09/donald-trump-hillary-clinton-worst-president-james-buchanan-214252 (accessed December 19, 2016) “Worst president ever: The ignominy of James Buchanan.” CBS News. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/worst-president-ever-the-ignominy-of-james-buchanan/ (accessed December 19, 2016) Robert Strauss, Worst. President. Ever.: James Buchanan, the POTUS Rating Game, and the Legacy of the Least of the Lesser Presidents (Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2016) Garry Boulard, The Worst President – The Story of James Buchanan (iUniverse, 2015) Rick Allen, “Harmony Amidst Division: The Cabinet of James Buchanan,” Muster, http://journalofthecivilwarera.org/2016/12/harmony-amidst-division-cabinet-james-buchanan/ (accessed December 19, 2016).

[3] For more on Buchanan’s cabinet, see Michael Landis, Northern Men with Southern Loyalties: The Democratic Party and the Sectional Crisis (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014) Philip S. Klein, President James Buchanan, A Biography (Newtown, CT: American Political Biography Press, 1995).

[4] For more on Buchanan’s role in the Dred Scott decision, see Landis, Northern Men with Southern Loyalties Philip S. Klein, President James Buchanan, A Biography (Newtown, CT: American Political Biography Press, 1995) Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Dred Scott Case: Its Significance in American Law and Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978).

[5] For more on Buchanan’s role in the passage of the Lecompton Constitution, see Nicole Etcheson, Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004) Landis, Northern Men with Southern Loyalties.

[6] James Buchanan, Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion (1866).

James Buchanan

Tall, stiffly formal in the high stock he wore around his jowls, James Buchanan was the only president who never married.

Presiding over a rapidly dividing nation, Buchanan did not quite grasp the political realities of the time. Relying on constitutional doctrines to close the widening rift over slavery, he failed to understand that the North would not accept constitutional arguments which favored the South. Nor did he realize how sectionalism had realigned political parties: the Democrats split the Whigs were destroyed, giving rise to the Republicans.

Born into a well-to-do Pennsylvania family on April 23, 1791, Buchanan, a graduate of Dickinson College, was gifted as a debater and learned in the law. He was elected five times to the House of Representatives then, after an interlude as minister to Russia, served for more than a decade in the Senate. He became James K. Polk’s secretary of state and Franklin Pierce’s minister to Great Britain. Service abroad helped to bring him the Democratic nomination in 1856 because it had removed him from domestic crises and kept his political opinions fairly private.

As president-elect, Buchanan thought the crisis would disappear if he maintained a sectional balance in his appointments and if he could persuade the people to accept constitutional law as the Supreme Court interpreted it. The Court was considering the legality of restricting slavery in the territories, and two justices hinted to Buchanan what the decision would be.

Thus, in his Inaugural Address the president referred to the territorial question as “happily, a matter of but little practical importance” since the Supreme Court was about to settle it “speedily and finally.” Two days later, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney delivered the Dred Scott decision, which ruled that African Americans were not citizens and had no standing to sue for freedom. The court also found the Missouri Compromise of 1820 unconstitutional, stating that Congress did not have the power to outlaw slavery in the territories.

Buchanan decided to end the troubles in Kansas by urging the admission of the territory as a slave state. This further angered the Republicans and alienated members of his own party. Kansas remained a territory.

When Republicans won a plurality in the House in 1858, every significant bill they passed fell before southern votes in the Senate or a presidential veto. The federal government reached a stalemate. A year later, abolitionist John Brown and his followers seized the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Brown, who had killed several proslavery settlers in Kansas, hoped to inspire a slave uprising but was captured, convicted, and executed. Abolitionists viewed him as a freedom fighter and martyr southerners considered him a murderer and proof that abolitionists would use any means necessary to destroy slavery.

These events intensified sectional tensions so much that in 1860 the Democratic Party split into northern and southern wings, each nominating its own candidate for the presidency. Consequently, when the Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln, it was almost a foregone conclusion that he would be elected even though his name did not appear on most southern states’ ballots. Rather than accept a Republican administration, the southern “fire-eaters” advocated secession.

Buchanan, dismayed and hesitant, denied the legal right of states to secede but held that the federal government legally could not prevent them. He hoped for compromise, but secessionist leaders did not want it.

Then Buchanan took a more militant tack. As several cabinet members resigned, he appointed northerners, and sent the Star of the West to carry reinforcements and supplies to Fort Sumter. On January 9, 1861, the vessel was fired upon and driven away.

Buchanan refused to act. In March 1861, he retired to his Pennsylvania home Wheatland. In his final years, Buchanan supported the Union cause but critics castigated him for permitting secession. After the war, Buchanan published a book that defended his views of the Constitution and the actions he took toward the South during his presidency. He died on June 1, 1868.

Personal Life

Spouse and family: Buchanan never married.

Speculation abounds that Buchanan's close friendship with a male senator from Alabama, William Rufus King, was a romantic relationship. King and Buchanan lived together for years, and on the Washington social circle they were nicknamed "the Siamese Twins."

Education: Buchanan was a graduate of Dickinson College, in the class of 1809.

During his college years, Buchanan was once expelled for bad behavior, which including drunkenness. He supposedly determined to reform his ways and live an exemplary life after that incident.

After college, Buchanan studied in law offices (a standard practice at the time) and was admitted to the Pennsylvania bar in 1812.

Early career: Buchanan was successful as a lawyer in Pennsylvania, and became known for his command of the law as well as for public speaking.

He became involved in Pennsylvania politics in 1813, and was elected to the state legislature. He opposed the war of 1812, but volunteered for a militia company.

He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1820, and served ten years in Congress. Following that, he became the American diplomatic representative in Russia for two years.

After returning to America, he was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he served from 1834 to 1845.

Following his decade in the Senate, he became President James K. Polk's secretary of state, serving in that post from 1845 to 1849. He took another diplomatic assignment, and served as the U.S. ambassador to Britain from 1853 to 1856.

Pat Buchanan: Now, the left owns it all

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That mob that split off from the Donald Trump rally of Jan. 6 to invade the Capitol has proven a godsend to the left.

The death of a Capitol cop has enabled the left &mdash which spent the summer after George Floyd&rsquos death trashing &ldquoracist cops&rdquo and shouting, &ldquoDefund the Police!&rdquo &mdash to posture as fighting allies of the men in blue.

Liberals who implored us to understand the grievances of the rioters, looters and arsonists last summer have become sudden converts to the church of law and order.

Elites who had condoned the smashing of statues and monuments to Columbus, Washington, Jefferson and Jackson as a needed cleansing of our hateful history have declared themselves sickened that Trumpists would desecrate the temple of democracy.

Had it been antifa or BLM that carried out the invasion, not one statue would have been left standing in Statuary Hall, and we would have been instructed that it was slaves who had, after all, built the Capitol building.

The media is airing endless footage of the mob marauding inside the Capitol. Purpose: to plant indelibly in the public mind the fiction that this was the deliberate work of Donald Trump and his people, and our elites are the real adversaries of violent protest.

In anticipation of today&rsquos inauguration, 25,000 National Guard have been deployed in and around D.C. to defend against right-wing mobs or would-be assassins. Three or four times as many troops are here in D.C. as there are U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria combined.

Now, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. And better too much security than not enough. But even given the Jan. 6 outrage, to arm our capital city as though Stonewall Jackson&rsquos Confederates were going to march up Manassas Road and capture Abe Lincoln after the Union defeat at Bull Run seems a bit excessive.

Yet today is a historic day. Trump will be gone from the White House and national power and responsibility will pass to the Democratic Party.

Democrats take over the House, Senate and White House. Virtually all major media will be in their camp. They will be welcomed in a city that has never elected a Republican mayor and has no Republicans on the city council, a city that voted for Joe Biden 18-1 over Trump.

The government bureaucracies here are as deeply Democratic as the &ldquodeep state&rdquo that bedeviled Trump for four years. Biden&rsquos Cabinet is the most racially and ethnically diverse ever the majority of its members are women and people of color. Obama administration holdovers dominate the national security team.

Other problems Trump failed to solve &mdash the pandemic now killing 3,000 to 4,000 Americans a day, the failure to get vaccines into the arms of millions of more Americans &mdash are now Joe&rsquos problems.

Calling Trump names will no longer cut it.

Now, Democrats must decide whether to proceed with the impeachment trial of Trump for inciting a riot that began on the Capitol steps as he was speaking a mile away, a riot planned long before the rally on the Mall.

Now, Democrats can choose whether they will forego extracting their pound of flesh as the first order of business in the Senate and let Nancy Pelosi sit a while on her impeachment resolution.

Now, Democrats have it all. If they wish, they can abolish the filibuster, pack the Supreme Court, make D.C. and Puerto Rico states, forgive all student debt, and vote for slavery reparations.

Pat Buchanan is author of “Nixon’s White House Wars: The Battles That Made and Broke a President and Divided America Forever.”

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Who's the worst president of them all?

By Glenn W. LaFantasie
Published February 21, 2011 12:30PM (EST)

Former presidents Buchanan and Bush


In 2006, while the Bush administration smashed its way through two wars, countless constitutional constraints, and a fragile economy constructed on the slippery slope of tax cuts for the wealthy, Sean Wilentz, a Princeton historian, pondered in Rolling Stone whether W. would be regarded as America's worst president. Rather coyly, Wilentz never came right out and said that Bush 43 was the worst, but his essay gathered together all the evidence that pointed toward only one verdict: guilty as charged.

In making his case, Wilentz mentioned a 2004 poll of historians, who predicted that Bush would surely end up among the worst five presidents. While presidents have a way of rewriting their own history -- witness Bush's recent book tour -- he doesn't seem to be on a path to any near-term redemption. For example, a poll conducted in July 2010 by the Siena Research Institute revealed that 238 "presidential scholars" had ranked Bush among the five worst presidents (39 out of 43), with Andrew Johnson solidly occupying the very bottom of the list. Johnson is a particular favorite for the bottom of the pile because of his impeachment (although he was acquitted in the Senate by one vote in May 1868), his complete mishandling of Reconstruction policy, his inept dealings with his Cabinet and Congress, his drinking problem (he was probably inebriated at his inauguration), his bristling personality, and his enormous sense of self-importance. He once suggested that God saw fit to have Lincoln assassinated so that he could become president. A Northern senator averred that "Andrew Johnson was the queerest character that ever occupied the White House."

Queerest? Perhaps. But worst? Johnson actually has some stiff competition for the bottom rung of the presidential rankings, not only from W, but also from one of his own contemporaries, James Buchanan, the fifteenth president.

Interestingly enough, Johnson and Buchanan, two of the worst presidents, stand as bookends for arguably the best: Abraham Lincoln. But Lincoln's greatness might never have manifested itself if it weren't for Buchanan's utter and complete incompetency, and for that reason I cast my ballot in favor of the fifteenth president as our absolutely worst chief executive ever.

While I acknowledge that Bush 43 was certainly the worst president I've seen in my lifetime (12 presidents have occupied the White House since my birth), he runs neck and neck with Buchanan's inadequacies as chief executive. Both of them pursued their own agendas: Buchanan hoped to placate the South as the sectional controversy grew worse (and became increasingly more violent) in the late 1850s, while Bush worked assiduously to dismantle the federal government while trying to fit his presidency into his vacation schedule. Buchanan failed to reach his goal Bush succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. Both presidents handed a broken country on to their successors. But Bush broke the nation's back on purpose, so he wins points for what we might call a competent incompetency.

By any measure, Buchanan was an odd duck. As the last president to be born in the 18th century (1791), he began life as the son of a storekeeper in Pennsylvania, attended Dickinson College (from which he was briefly expelled for rowdiness), and became an able attorney. Apart from eyelashes and eyebrows, Buchanan lacked any facial hair he never shaved throughout his adulthood. His eyes were slightly crossed to compensate for the defect, he often kept one eye shut and cocked his head to the side. Actually Buchanan was nearsighted in one eye and farsighted in the other.

Yet Buchanan built up a prosperous law practice, and savvy investments -- particularly in real estate -- made him a wealthy man. In 1819, he was engaged to Ann Caroline Coleman, the daughter of a prosperous manufacturer, but he devoted most of his time to his work as an attorney and to politics. For whatever reason, Ann Coleman broke off the engagement and died shortly afterward, perhaps from an accidental or self-induced overdose of laudanum. Her death left Buchanan distraught with grief. "I feel that happiness has fled from me forever," he told his father. The Coleman family prevented him from attending the funeral. He would mourn Ann's death for the rest of his life. From time to time friends urged him to marry, but Buchanan vowed never to take a wife. "My affections," he said, "were buried in the grave."

The mysteries surrounding his relationship with Ann Coleman resemble the bleak and brooding elements of an Edgar Allen Poe story, with Buchanan cast in the role of a bereft and inconsolable inamorato. He remained a committed bachelor until his death. Some historians have speculated that Buchanan was actually a homosexual, but these claims are based solely on the fact that he roomed for several years with a close friend, William Rufus King, an Alabamian who served in the U.S. Senate and as vice president under Franklin Pierce. Andrew Jackson once called Buchanan "an Aunt Nancy." A Tennessee governor referred to him and his roommate as "Buchanan & his wife." But such 19th century political slurs should not be interpreted in a 21st century context. Like most of us, Buchanan kept his sexual preferences -- whatever they were -- to himself.

During the War of 1812, Buchanan turned to politics, joined the Federalist Party, and served in the Pennsylvania Legislature from 1814 to 1816 he later won election to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served from 1821 to 1831. In Washington, he turned his back on the Federalists and ardently -- although somewhat incongruously, given his wealth and high status -- supported Andrew Jackson and the rising populism of the Democratic Party. Jackson appointed him minister to Russia, a diplomatic post that placed Buchanan as far away from Washington as the spoils system could manage. When he returned to the States, he was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he displayed all the traits of a Democratic Party stalwart, a strict constitutional constructionist (in the Jeffersonian mode), and -- again, incongruously -- a Northerner who strongly, even sometimes impulsively, supported Southern interests, including any measure that would protect or extend the institution of slavery.

In the 1840s, he hoped to receive the Democratic Party nomination for president, but he did not attract much attention in Congress or as a diplomat, and he occupied a middling rank in his own party. When James K. Polk won the presidency in 1844, he named Buchanan secretary of state -- a plum appointment -- but the new president grew frustrated with the Pennsylvanian, calling him indecisive and thinking him ineffective. "Mr. Buchanan is an able man," Polk wrote in his diary, "but in small matters without judgment and sometimes acts like an old maid." As secretary of state, Buchanan's biggest idea was to propose the annexation of Cuba while the United States went about adding great expanses of territory in the Southwest and along the Pacific Coast after defeating Mexico in the U.S.-Mexican War of 1846-1847. The dream of acquiring Cuba danced in Buchanan's head for the rest of his life, obviously to no avail, even though plenty of Southerners would have loved taking over an island in the Caribbean where slavery already existed, just 90 miles or so off the U.S. mainland. Americans, he believed, should go wherever they wanted to go, although he said so in a potentially tongue-tying sentence: "Let us go on whithersoever our destiny may lead us."

Echoes of Buchanan's belief in Manifest Destiny can still be heard in our own time. In his 2004 State of the Union address, George W. Bush recast (but only slightly) Buchanan's belief in manifest destiny by trumpeting: "America is a Nation with a mission -- and that mission comes from our most basic beliefs. We have no desire to dominate, no ambitions of empire. Our aim is a democratic peace -- a peace founded upon the dignity and rights of every man and woman." That was one of his explanations for why the United States had invaded Iraq without provocation. Buchanan's "whithersoever" had landed us in the Middle East -- without an exit strategy. For Bush and Buchanan, there was simply no way to avoid destiny and providence. If God wanted the U.S. to possess California and Oregon, so let it be done. Ditto Iraq and Afghanistan.

Buchanan thought he could grasp the presidency by wooing support from Southern Democrats, so he remained steadfast in his defense of states' rights, slavery and its extension into western territories, and aggressive expansionism. Yet his bid for the Democratic nomination failed in 1848, when Lewis Cass of Michigan ran and lost to Zachary Taylor, the Whig candidate, and again in 1852, when Franklin Pierce won the Democratic nomination and the election. Buchanan hoped that Pierce would name him secretary of state, but the new president instead appointed him minister to Great Britain. Once again Buchanan's ostensible political friends had succeeded in getting him out of the country and, one assumes, out of their hair. In London, he could not stop thinking about Cuba. He traveled to Ostend, Belgium, in October 1854, where, with two other American ministers, he drew up a "manifesto" that called for the use of force by the U.S. to take possession of the island. Inevitably, the Ostend Manifesto was leaked to the press, giving rise to a storm of protest at home and abroad. Congress investigated the diplomatic correspondence surrounding the document's creation, and Northern antislavery forces denounced it as nothing more than a Southern attempt to expand slavery into the Caribbean. The Pierce administration gave up its designs on Cuba, but Buchanan kept longing for the island, hoping that someday the United States (and he) would hold it in a loving embrace.

From across the Atlantic, Buchanan also kept his eye firmly focused on presidential politics. He resigned as minister to England and returned to the U.S. in time to throw his hat into the ring for the Democratic nomination in 1856. His timing was perfect, since the Democratic Party had been thrown into disarray by the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act two years earlier. The act, which was the brainchild of Sen. Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, voided the earlier Missouri Compromise by allowing the voters of Kansas and Nebraska to decide by means of what was called "popular sovereignty" whether their territories should allow slavery inside their borders. Conflict between pro-slavery "border ruffians" and "free-soilers" resulted in violence between the two sides. President Pierce supported the pro-slavery element in Kansas, despite the fact that free-soilers actually constituted a major of the population. As a result, both Pierce and Douglas, who also had presidential aspirations, lost support in the Democratic Party -- a political development that worked to Buchanan's great advantage.

Regarded as a safe candidate, since he had been overseas during the upheavals over Kansas, the Democrats nominated him at their convention in Cincinnati. In the general election, Buchanan faced off against two other candidates: John C. Frémont of the Republican Party and Millard Fillmore, the former president, of the American (or "Know-Nothing") Party. Buchanan won, but only by a plurality, not a majority. Nevertheless, he saw his victory as a mandate, namely that Americans had voted for Union over disunion.

From the start of his presidency -- indeed, from the very moment of his inaugural address -- Buchanan revealed that he was going to do everything he could to sustain slavery and Southern interests, no matter how much his policies would give Northern Republicans proof that the new president was part of what they called a "Slave Power Conspiracy." Sixty-five years old, with snow white hair, Buchanan took the oath of office and delivered his inaugural address. He made plain his own and his party's belief that Congress had no authority to interfere with the institution of slavery.

What really mattered to him, however, was the prospect of finding a judicial, rather than a congressional or a presidential, solution to the sectional issue of slavery. Going beyond accepted political bounds, and ignoring the principle of separation of powers, Buchanan had used his influence to sway a Northern Supreme Court justice to side with the Southern majority in a pending case, Dred Scott v. Sandford. When he delivered his inaugural, Buchanan already knew the outcome of that case, although in his address he deceitfully alluded to the forthcoming decision by saying of the Court: "To their decision, in common with all good citizens, I shall cheerfully submit, whatever this may be." Two days later, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney issued the most infamous decision in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court -- an opinion holding that Dred Scott, a slave who sued for his freedom because he had lived with his master for a time in a free state, was not free that no slave or black person could be a citizen of the U.S. that Congress had no power to exclude slavery from a territory and that the slavery exclusion clause of the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was unconstitutional. The opinion did not resolve the sectional controversy as Buchanan and the Taney court had hoped. Instead, it produced thunderous outrage throughout the North. In the South, of course, the decision was cheered. But Northerners saw the court's action as a partisan ploy.

Ignoring the clamor of criticism from the North, Buchanan nestled into the White House by surrounding himself with advisors who told him what he wanted to hear rather than what he needed to know. The new president lived in a bubble, despite the fact that the nation was beginning to crumble around him. During his first year in office, an economic depression (referred to as the Panic of 1857) hit the country and persisted for his entire term in office. With striking ineptitude, Buchanan failed to deal with the economic crisis in any effective manner, which only helped to increase bitterness between Northern commercial interests and Southern agrarians. Spouting his philosophy of limited government, he told the public that the government lacked the power "to extend relief" to those hardest hit by the depression. As he promised to reduce the federal debt and all government spending, Buchanan nevertheless oversaw during his one term in office a growth in federal spending that amounted to 15 percent of the budget in 1856. When he left office, Buchanan handed over a $17 million deficit to Lincoln.

In the heat of mounting sectional discord and as the economy bottomed out, Buchanan abandoned the traditional understanding in U.S. politics of regarding his political enemies as a loyal opposition instead, Buchanan, like George W. Bush 150 years later, accused his political opponents of disloyalty, extremism and treason. "The great object of my administration," Buchanan wrote in 1856, "will be to arrest, if possible, the agitation of the Slavery question at the North and to destroy sectional parties." In other words, Buchanan wanted to eliminate the Republicans, not just defeat them, rather like how Karl Rove worked strenuously to create a "permanent majority" for the Republican Party during Bush 43's presidency.

While Buchanan condemned Republicans and abolitionists as the source of all the nation's troubles, the Kansas problem continued to boil over. When the pro-slavery minority in Kansas submitted a fraudulent constitution legalizing slavery in the territory, Buchanan endorsed the document as legitimate. Then he tried to force his arch-rival, Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, to do the same. In a White House meeting, Buchanan threatened Douglas by pointing out that since Andrew Jackson's time no senator had opposed a presidential measure successfully without then losing his next bid for reelection. Furious, Douglas replied: "Mr. President, I wish you to remember that General Jackson is dead!" He then stormed out of the White House. (Douglas won reelection to his seat, successfully defeating Abraham Lincoln in the Illinois Senate contest of 1858.)

Buchanan went forward and submitted the Kansas issue to Congress. Then, in his annual message, he enjoyed a "Mission Accomplished" moment by declaring that "Kansas is . at this moment as much a slave state as Georgia and South Carolina." But Congress had not yet decided the fate of Kansas. After fierce debate, the Senate approved the bill admitting Kansas as a slave state, but the House of Representatives did not. Finally, in Kansas, the free-soil majority voted against the pro-slavery constitution in a fair election. (Kansas would remain a territory until 1861, when, after the departure of Southerners from Congress, it was admitted into the Union as a free state.) With a smugness that smacked of delusion, Buchanan took credit for making Kansas "tranquil and prosperous."

Even as Buchanan was fanning the flames of sectional strife over Kansas, another crisis in the West demanded his attention as president. In Utah territory, the Mormons combined an overt patriotism and demonstrations of loyalty to the U.S. government with rebellious rhetoric and actions -- such as the practice of polygamy, otherwise outlawed in the U.S. -- that left many Americans outside of the Great Basin convinced that the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were intent on dominating the government of Utah, ignoring federal officials and authority in the territory, and enforcing a "Theodemocracy," rather than a true democracy, under the leadership of Brigham Young. When reports reached Washington in the spring of 1857 that the Mormons were in a state of near insurrection against federal authority, Buchanan concluded -- on something less than reliable evidence -- that the Utah settlers had "for several years past manifested a spirit of insubordination to the Constitution and laws of the United States," that the inhabitants of the territory were under "a strange system of terrorism," and that those who resisted the federal government were therefore traitors. Accordingly, he ordered, in his capacity as commander in chief, a military expedition to the territory that was "not to be withdrawn until the inhabitants of that Territory shall manifest a proper sense of the duty which they owe to this government." The army blundered its mission, and the Mormons fought an effective guerrilla campaign against the federal troops. Eventually, Buchanan felt the heat of political pressure to end the so-called Mormon War, and a peaceful end to the fiasco. True to form, however, Buchanan claimed credit for a victory in Utah.

The president was a saber-rattler. To solve a dispute between the U.S. and the British over the boundary through the Strait of Juan de Fuca in the Northwest, Buchanan sent troops under the command of Gen. Winfield Scott to Puget Sound. Luckily the argument was settled peacefully. He also dispatched 2,500 sailors and Marines to Paraguay after a U.S. naval captain had been killed there. The campaign lasted months without any appreciable results. Like other presidents who would follow him, including George W. Bush, Buchanan resorted to military force without qualms and then, when the use of force did not quite work out as he intended, he simply declared victory and hoped that everyone would forget his mistakes. At least he did not say out loud to the Mormons, the British or the Paraguayans, as Bush 43 did to his enemies, "Bring them on." Even so, he assumed the posture of an aggressive commander in chief -- one who conveniently overlooked the fact that Congress, and not the chief executive, was supposed to declare war.

Meanwhile, Buchanan pushed ahead with what he considered his most important piece of business: acquiring Cuba for the United States. After his nomination for the presidency, Buchanan reiterated his extraordinary lust for Cuba. "If I can be instrumental in settling the slavery question . and then adding Cuba to the Union," he exclaimed, "I shall be willing to give up the ghost." Yet Spain had not changed its mind since the time of the Ostend Manifesto. It had no interest in relinquishing Cuba to any other country, including the United States. A bill to purchase the island languished and then died in Congress. Undeterred, Buchanan kept saying over and over, "We must have Cuba." Because his desire for Cuba was not fulfilled, he did not give up the ghost.

Instead, he led the nation into its worst crisis. The crisis, at least, was not entirely of his own making, although he surely contributed to the steady escalation of belligerent feelings between North and South while he sat in the White House. He also helped bring about a schism in the Democratic Party that led to a four-way race for the presidency in the election of 1860: in the North, Abraham Lincoln (R) versus Stephen Douglas (D), and in the South, John C. Breckinridge (D) versus John Bell (Constitution Union Party). Buchanan did not run for reelection because he had promised the nation he would serve only one term. In that sense, he was a lame-duck president from the moment he had been elected in 1856, and his disputes with Congress suffered because everyone in Washington knew that he would be gone after four short years.

What triggered the immediate chain of events that led to the Civil War was Abraham Lincoln's election to the presidency on Nov. 6, 1860. Fearful that Lincoln was a die-hard abolitionist, rather than a Republican who simply wanted to prohibit the spread of slavery into the western territories, a good number of Southern extremists called "fire-eaters" vowed to take their states out of the Union if Lincoln became president. With his election, South Carolina quickly called a convention to consider the matter of secession, and on Dec. 20, after Lincoln's election had been confirmed by the Electoral College, the Palmetto State jubilantly declared that it was no longer in the United States. Despite all the rationalizations and elaborate justifications for secession, then and ever after, the action taken by South Carolina was illegal and traitorous. Buchanan, as the nation's chief magistrate, watched with a slack jaw as the South warned the nation that it would not abide Lincoln's election, despite the fact that the Illinoisan had been legally elected (and not, say, appointed to the presidency by the U. S. Supreme Court as George W. Bush would be in 2000). Rather than taking the South's threats seriously, Buchanan in his annual message ignored the impending crisis and asked one last time for a congressional appropriation with which to purchase Cuba. He also suggested that it might be prudent to send a military expedition into Mexico for the purpose of establishing an American protectorate in Chihuahua and Sonora to ward off Indian attacks and bandit raids into Texas and New Mexico. Congress refused his requests.

At first, though, it looked like Buchanan might take decisive action against disunion. In his annual message to Congress, in December 1860, he denied "the right of secession." The Founders had established a perpetual union, he said, and the federal government had the duty to defend it from all enemies, foreign and domestic. In Buchanan's estimation, there was no wiggle room when it came to disunion: "Secession is neither more nor less than revolution. It may or may not be a justifiable revolution but still it is revolution." By inserting the word "justifiable" in this last sentence, one could detect Buchanan faltering, his knees buckling like a boxer who's about to collapse to the mat. Sure enough, Buchanan also declared in his message that he and Congress lacked the authority to force any seceded state back into the Union. "The power to make war against a State," he contended, "is at variance with the whole spirit and intent of the Constitution . Our Union rests upon public opinion, and can never be cemented by the blood of its citizens shed in civil war."

But he said this 17 days before South Carolina or any other Southern state had left the Union. He was, in other words, providing the South with a handy justification for secession and letting them know the federal government would do nothing to stop the disintegration of the nation. No longer did Buchanan rattle sabers, as he had done in Utah or had threatened to do in acquiring Cuba or invading Mexico. When it came to the South and secession, the president professed to be powerless. In the North, his professed impotence seemed inexcusable, especially among those anti-slavery Democrats who remembered how Andrew Jackson had effectively handled the Nullification Crisis of 1832, when South Carolina tried to void a federal tariff law. Jackson had responded by threatening to use military force against South Carolina, which wisely had backed down. Stephen Douglas was right, though: Jackson was dead, and Buchanan was nothing like him.

Buchanan's lack of resolve, once South Carolina and the other states of the Deep South did abandon the Union, opened the door for those rebellious states to take possession of federal property -- forts, armories, post offices, customs houses -- without hindrance. Fort Sumter in South Carolina, which sat on a small island in the middle of Charleston's harbor, was among the few federal military installations that remained in the hands of the U.S. government. The fate of Fort Sumter threw Buchanan into a fit of indecision. Always something of a sponge who absorbed the ideas and strength of others around him, like W did under the mesmerizing influence of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, Buchanan continued to listen to his Southern advisors who told him to tread carefully or not at all. Throughout the month of December 1860, Buchanan nearly suffered a complete breakdown: He cursed aloud, he wept, his hands trembled, he could not remember orders he had given or documents he had read. Some mornings he found it difficult to get out of bed. Observers noticed that there was a constant twitching in his cheek, an indication that he might have suffered a minor stroke as the crisis mounted. Finally, he decided not to give up the fort, and the Southern members of his Cabinet resigned in protest. Buchanan replaced them with Cabinet officials who were more decisively Unionist in their sentiments.

He wanted someone -- anyone but himself -- to find a solution to the nation's problems. Nevertheless, by the end of December Buchanan ordered a supply ship to Fort Sumter the effort failed, however, when the ship was forced to abandon Charleston harbor when it came under heavy fire from batteries along the shore. Buchanan decided to do nothing else about the fort and the troops who defended it. In fact, it became clear that he intended to take no action against the South for the remaining eight weeks of his term. When he shared a carriage with Lincoln back to the White House after the new president's inauguration, Buchanan said, "If you are as happy in entering the White House as I shall feel on returning to Wheatland [his private estate in Pennsylvania] you are a happy man." Lincoln's reply, if any, is not recorded.

Buchanan spent the rest of his life at Wheatland justifying his actions -- and, more pointedly, his inaction -- in a memoir in which he referred to himself in the third person, as if he were a figure he had never met in person. He continued to blame abolitionists and the Republican Party for the nation's troubles, and he absolved himself of any responsibility for the Civil War, stating that he was "completely satisfied" with everything he had done as president. Forgotten by his countrymen as he spent his last years at Wheatland, he died in 1868. Many Americans had assumed he was already dead.

Numerous historians have said that no president was better qualified to serve in the White House than James Buchanan, given the vast amount of experience he had gained in elected and appointed offices over the course of a long career in public service. In 1988, some pundits said the same thing about George Herbert Walker Bush, who had served as vice president, ambassador, congressman and director of the CIA before winning the presidency. Too few pundits, however, pointed out how injuriously unqualified George W. Bush was for the presidency. But, then, we all learned that for ourselves over eight long years.

Lately some historians have tried to rehabilitate Buchanan. "It is unrealistic," writes a recent historian, Russell McClintock, "to think that in 1860 the White House could have been occupied by a chief executive willing to take a sufficiently bold stand" in the secession crisis. Really? McClintock believes that "few of the men who have occupied the White House could have stood up to the challenge of the moment." But that's nonsense. It amounts to admitting that most presidents are mediocre, and Buchanan should be forgiven for simply being more mediocre than most of them. Yet Lincoln had no experience in leadership when he took the oath of office. And while it's true that he fumbled during his first weeks in office, he eventually rose "to the challenge of the moment." What distinguishes Buchanan, then, is not that his mistakes can or should be excused, it's that he totally lacked the capacity to rise to the occasion, to act when action was necessary, to defend the country precisely when it needed defending. In other words, he was a terrible president.

Even so, Buchanan's incompetent incompetency resulted in our worst national catastrophe, though the Civil War cannot entirely be laid at his feet. Other forces, beyond his blunders, led to secession and war, and to some extent, when all's said and done, there was probably little he could have done to prevent the cascade of Southern states that left the Union after South Carolina marched out in December 1860. Indeed, it's just possible that if he had attempted to coerce South Carolina to rescind its secession, other Southern states might have seceded in even more rapid order than they ended up doing. That's not an excuse for his inaction, and my statement differs significantly in substance than McClintock's apologia for Buchanan. Buchanan might not have been able to change the course of history or to stop the onslaught of Civil War. But he might have at least tried.

As for George W. Bush, and his incompetent competency, he did not usher in a civil war -- not quite. But he did make a mockery of the Office of the President of the United States, initiate foreign wars without provocation, mismanage the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, overstep his constitutional authority as president and commander in chief, violate human and civil rights, approve the use of torture, call his domestic political opponents enemies of America and traitors, alienate most of the nation's allies around the world, lie about WMD, pass tax cuts for the wealthy that brought the national economy to its knees, sign the TARP bill into law while letting foreclosure victims eat cake, and spend a great amount of time pedaling his trail bike and clearing brush on vacation.

Buchanan's sins were many. Their consequences were felt by Northerners and Southerners through four years of a bloody Civil War. And so we still feel the effects of his ineptness 150 years after the fact. But we are still too close to Bush 43's despicable actions in office -- the ripple effect of all the mayhem he sought purposely to create -- for us to understand just how much lasting damage he actually accomplished. Even so, Bush's eight years in office were an unmitigated disaster. In fact, the more we learn as time goes by, the worse Bush's presidency continues to get there will undoubtedly be more damning revelations in the years and decades ahead.

Hence my verdict: As of today, Presidents' Day 2011, James Buchanan wins the dubious distinction of having been our worst president. Nevertheless, it is well within the realm of possibility -- once historians have a chance to reckon more completely with all of Bush 43's extraordinary transgressions as president -- that W might someday unseat Buchanan as the very worst president this nation has ever had.

Glenn W. LaFantasie

Glenn W. LaFantasie is the Richard Frockt Family Professor of Civil War History at Western Kentucky University. He is working on a book about Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant.

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