President James Buchanan: A Biography — Philip S. Klein

Buchanan’s presidency is consistently rated among the worst in US history. He split the Democratic Party over Kansas, oversaw the Panic of 1857 (and did little to remedy it), and largely sat back while the North and South became increasingly divided. Buchanan was not responsible for the Civil War. But he was in charge when the initial seven states seceded from the Union and was certainly no help in keeping the Union intact.

In many respects though, Buchanan was a good politician. He had worked in politics for many years and had actually served in Polk’s cabinet (although he may have been less help than hindrance). He was a clever party strategist and entered office confident that he would repair the previous decade’s downward slide. His emphasis on compromise and his unwillingness to assume responsibility on key issues appear to have been his downfall, along with his failure to grasp quite how precarious the situation was. There is little to commend his presidency, and much to learn from his failures.

Klein provides a comprehensive exploration of Buchanan’s career in his biography and I felt he offered many insights into Buchanan’s behaviour. His book is highly biased in Buchanan’s favour, and I thought that a shame since it didn’t feel necessary. Buchanan has such an awful reputation that even modest attempts to assert his decency would be welcome. Klein tries a little too hard. I was also a little disappointed by Klein’s lack of interest in Buchanan’s private life: partly because there is some speculation that Buchanan was homosexual and I think that worth discussing, and partly because I would have liked a more human figure presented to me. But for anyone looking for an in-depth perspective on Buchanan’s professional life and presidency, this is a valuable resource.

Before I finish this, I want to make an observation about the previous batch of presidents. They (Taylor – Buchanan) have some of the worst reputations of presidents in history. This is probably unfair. Particularly when you consider the strength of Polk’s reputation which comes largely from the country’s westward expansion. When you look at the major political confrontations of the time, they revolved around the status of those states (particularly regarding slavery) which had been created from that expansion. Many opponents of slavery at the time considered it an outdated practice that would gradually die out over time as technological improvements and shifts in public attitudes made the institution undesirable.

But the problem with slow and steady declines is that they don’t happen when forced. The admission of these states was bound to be inflammatory as they had to either be slave states or free states, and presidents were forced to deal with this. They failed to do so, which led to civil war and earned them their low popular regard. Lincoln is remembered partly because he was an exceptional man, and partly because he led the Union during the civil war and won, ending slavery in the process. Don’t forget though: that process killed over 620,000 men. However misguided, and however futile, their efforts, those were deaths which the pre-war presidents sought to avoid. They were in an unenviable position, faced with a near-impossible challenge, and hampered by the unfortunate quality of not being Lincoln. So I have more respect for them now than I had going into this project.

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