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• US President James Buchanan is considered one of the worst presidents in American history.
• His failure can’t simply be attributed to incompetence.
• The Pennsylvania native was overly sympathetic to Southern interests.
History hasn’t looked too fondly upon former US President James Buchanan.
Today, Buchanan’s failure to hold the Union together and stop the secession of the South is held up as one of the worst presidential mistakes ever made.
When he was inaugurated in 1857, the 15th president had pretty lofty aspirations. In fact, according to Philip Klein’s “President James Buchanan,” Buchanan hoped his presidency would rank alongside George Washington’s.
So what went wrong?
According to Goucher College professor and “James Buchanan” author Jean Baker, we can’t just dismiss Buchanan as an ineffective and incompetent leader. She says that the problems with his tenure weren’t due to age – at the age of 65, Buchanan was one of the oldest US presidents to take office – and health concerns, either.
Baker says that Buchanan’s failure as a leader stemmed from ideological roots.
“He really worked quite conscientiously to support what became the Confederacy,” Baker says.
Buchanan was no political novice. He’d served in the House of Representatives and the Senate, and as Minister to Russia, Secretary of State, and Ambassador to the UK.
“Presumably he arrived in the White House with every understanding of what leadership or management is all about,” Baker says.
What’s more, Baker says that Buchanan wasn’t passive early in his presidency when it came to issues that didn’t involve slavery, the issue that Thomas Jefferson once called “the fire bell in the night.” For example, Buchanan quickly took action to quell insurrectionist Mormon settlers during the Utah War. He also proved proficient at stuffing the government with what Baker calls “partisan hacks,” through the system of patronage.
“He was effective because he had this long training in public life,” she says. “I think he was emboldened by some of that and he went much too far in terms of some of the things that he did.”
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Buchanan’s downfall as a leader came from his clear bias toward the South. This partiality became obvious early on in his presidency. According an article by Michael Todd Landis in the Journal of the Civil War Era, Buchanan’s initial Cabinet “consisted of four Southerners, one elderly Northern statesman quite agreeable to Southerners, and two additional Northern men who were considered doughfaces. In the end, Buchanan’s cabinet did not even represent a range of interests and opinions within the Democratic party, much less the nation.”
“A better management style, of course, would have been to incorporate more Northern Democrats, and to use them to find out what the best policy was,” Baker says. “Buchanan’s just picking these guys who are only interested in the Southern viewpoint.”
Several members of his Cabinet ended up being influential figures in the Confederacy later on.
“Floyd, the Secretary of War, scattered the army so that much of it could be captured when hostilities should commence, and distributed the cannon and small arms from Northern arsenals throughout the South so as to be on hand when treason wanted them,” Ulysses S. Grant wrote in his memoirs.
Floyd eventually resigned and became a Confederate general.
“If you’re the president of the United States, you’re the president of everyone, including the North,” Baker says. “He failed miserably to understand an important thing, which was that the South was becoming a minority. That’s why they were behaving the way they were. They saw more and more that they were going to lose the Electoral College and indeed they lost it in 1860 to Abraham Lincoln.”
So why was the Cove Gap, Pennsylvania native so sympathetic to Southern sensibilities in the first place? Well, Buchanan may not have necessarily had pro-slavery views, but he viewed Northern abolitionists as more dangerous to the Union than slave-owners themselves.
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It’s also known that that the somewhat reclusive Buchanan – the only lifelong bachelor to serve as president – was very close with the Alabama Senator and US Vice President William Rufus King. Their intimate friendship caused contemporaries and some historians, including Baker, to speculate that Buchanan may have been gay. Regardless of whether or not the relationship was romantic, the personal connection may have also influenced the 15th president.
“He had a need to be close to Southerners,” Baker says. “He liked their world. They were gracious. He built Wheatland, a house up in Lancaster, that sort of looks like a minor plantation home. That personal deficit affected his management.”
Buchanan’s strategy of favoring the South at all costs famously backfired. By Lincoln’s inauguration on March 4, 1861, South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas had seceded from the Union and all the Southerners had departed from the Cabinet.
Buchanan returned to Lancaster to find “solace” in writing a two volume book justifying his actions as president.
While he had always viewed himself as a good leader and “competent public figure,” in a blog post for the New York Times, Baker said that the last year of Buchanan’s presidency was the “worst year of his life.”
She cites one possibly apocryphal story about the 15th president’s eagerness to retire on the eve of the Civil War. While riding up to Lincoln’s inauguration, Buchanan turned to his successor and said, “If you are as happy entering the White House as I shall feel on returning to Wheatland, you are a happy man indeed.”