President James Buchanan
Author: Philip S. Klein
Much like Martin Van Buren or Millard Fillmore, Buchanan was a politician through and through, although his ambitions are more clearly defined due to the strategies he used being a conscious reflection of those winning recipes by his predecessors. Ben Perley Poore stated of Buchanan that “never did a wily politician more industriously plot and plan to secure a nomination than Mr. Buchanan did, in his still hunt for the Presidency. Speaking of Martin Van Buren, Buchanan took aim at the highest office in the land from every election from Martin Van Buren to when he ultimately won.
With that lengthy of a political career, one would expect that Buchanan would be attached to all sorts of interesting and important moments in government, but that was actually not the case. Philip Klein writes on page 142:
“In this remarkable galaxy of American politicians, Buchanan always stood on the periphery. He never, in all his legislative career, had his name attached to an important bill or became the focal point of public interest in a debate…He quietly exerted a great deal of influence on important legislation, but his steady craftsmanship attracted little public attention.”
How did such a man become president? Precisely because of Buchanan’s nature, as well as some fortunate timing on his part, he managed to avoid being caught in a position that made him unacceptable to the new Republican North or the Democrat South. Klein continues to write on page 248 that Buchanan “could not help wondering about the freak fate which had kept him out of Congress during each of the four most violent sectional controversies of the century: The Missouri Compromise, The Nullification Struggle, The 1950 Compromise, and now the Kansas-Nebraska Bill. If he should become president he feared he should not escape the next outburst.” History now ranks Buchanan among the worst presidents as his great fear was certainly realized in the most violent way possible.
Here’s how he scores up on my presidential ratings rubric:
Born into – Buchanan’s father was an Irish immigrant, who bought some land from a public sale after earning some money working for a family member. He ended up becoming a successful farmer and store owner, but nothing particularly prolific compared to many of the other presidential families. James had several sisters, but was also the oldest (surviving) child, whose few brothers were much younger (14 years or more). For his parents humble beginning he scores well here, but being the oldest son was also a ticket to success compared to others. 4/5
Pre-President – George Washington was family hero to the Buchanan’s that that they may have even met in the late 1700’s (when James was 3 or 4), so it’s no surprise that Buchanan ended up being a permanent presidential aspirant. Not a lot is known about his younger years that is distinctive of any many of that era. Buchanan went to Dickinson College to learn pre-law; he was expelled for bad behavior, but was also eventually reinstated. Despite that, it was obvious that Buchanan was disliked by Dickinson faculty for his attitude throughout this time. Although he made his share of enemies in politics, this appears to have been a particularly rowdy period for him as later on he was mainly described as having an accountant’s personality, keeping track of everything paid and everything owed, including keeping books indicating where he stood with everybody.
Buchanan’s first foray into politics was becoming a State Assembly man after being nominated by a friend. The first speech that Buchanan gave convinced people he was a Democrat; Buchanan over-corrected so much that his 2nd speech was so anti-democrat it created lifetime enemies (Note, Buchanan was a Federalist at this time; the family did idolize Washington). For income Buchanan ran a successful law practice, so much so that Buchanan appears to have been one of the wealthier former presidents upon retirement. Once Buchanan was elected to Congress as a Federalist, he was appreciated by his constituents who then reelected him twice more (which had never happened to somebody from his district previously).
Once in Congress Buchanan again made his mark with a speech, this time defending Calhoun on overspending on the war budget, making a formidable ally while doing so. As with every politician alive from the early to mid 1800’s, the election of John Quincy Adams shook up Buchanan’s world. Buchanan played an important role by being the congressman to directly ask Andrew Jackson about promises in his cabinet, as well as alluding to what rumors he had heard. The fallout was Buchanan eventually switched parties from Federalist to Jackson Democrat, even though Jackson never trusted him completely afterwards.
Buchanan was still reelected even though he switched parties, although the shuffling among politicians resulted in his branch of the party (called by the author the Amalgamation group) losing ground in political appointments. While Buchanan thought he was in line for a treasury or even Vice Presidency spot, he ended up being appointed as Minister to Russia (a spot the author says was reserved for sending dangerous politicians). Buchanan held this spot for two years, and thought it appears he was liked he also didn’t accomplish anything of note there. When he returned, he was able to be inserted into a Senator spot after all the shakeouts from party conflicts opened one up, even though he wouldn’t have won at an election (per the author).
Once there, yet another speech made others take note of him, this time defending George M. Dallas’s position during the National bank controversy, once again creating an ally and positioning himself to get notoriety while not defining Buchanan’s individual politics. He became the chairman of Foreign Relations Committee in the Senate, where he got the nickname “10 cent Jimmy” by Whigs based on speech he made about ten cents a day being a sufficient working wage, a nickname that stuck with his detractors afterward. Once note of interest, Buchanan was on the receiving end of the first telegraph from Samuel Morse, which indicated Polk’s surprise Democrat nomination.
Once Dark Horse Polk was elected President, he named Buchanan Secretary of State, but before it was finalized the two acknowledged the possibility Buchanan would seek the nomination the following term but would step down from office if that happened. As Secretary of State, Buchanan picked Nicholas Trist for negotiating a treaty with Mexico; Trist ended up being disaster in the eyes of administration, a man who didn’t follow directions and continued representing the country after Polk wanted him recalled. Polk never trusted Buchanan throughout his presidency, according to Polk’s journals.
Buchanan was “retired” during the Taylor/Fillmore administrations, during which time he bought a big farm and helped take care of orphaned or poor relatives. His reentry to politics was as London Ambassador for the Pierce administration, where dealt with issues of British presence in Caribbean in violation of Clayton/Bulwer Treaty, though he didn’t have any success in resolving. He also got roped into America’s attempt to purchase Cuba; none of those present for these “negotiations” came away looking great due to a mixup of language (the famous use of the word “detach” discussed in my Pierce review) and personalities (Boulle was detested by Spanish).
Following Pierce’s term, the new and strong Republican party (with candidate Fremont) threatened to jail Pierce and others that disagreed with them on handling of Kansas matter if they won. (Between Andrew Jackson’s biography and Pierce/Buchanan, I think I’ve seen every crazy thing from the Trump Administration represented in one of these biographies.) Against this contested political setting, Buchanan was the election by carrying his home state and much of south. It was apparent at that point that the Democratic Party was the only party that was not entirely regional at that point. 2/5
Presidential Career – Buchanan filled his cabinet by trying to represent various states and not ideologies. As a result he was not in touch with the extreme views of the political climate directly prior to the Civil war. Lewis Cass was made the Secretary of State, but mainly an honorary title at that point due to his age. Howell Cobb was the main voice in the Cabinet, a Georgia man against secession as late as 1860.
Buchanan’s goals in taking office were to preserve the Union and quiet the anti-slavery element (which he considered the greatest threat to the Union). History has not been kind to his term in office, as many historians list Buchanan as the worst president. Having just read Franklin Pierce’s biographies, it’s tough to say who was worse. In addition to Buchanan’s views of preserving slavery as an institution, he also had a near million dollar embezzlement scandal involving members of cabinet.
Buchanan was already out of touch with his country when he was elected. In particular he was naïve about the possible outcomes in Kansas, always assuming it would be a free state and that only real issue was making sure it went Democrat. As with Pierce, Kansas became the key issues of his presidency, as Buchanan supported the original vote that settlers made toward government despite allegations that it had been fixed by the pro slavery faction. Buchanan’s decision to favor those that did vote rather than those that stayed at home seems to have been based on his preference for the law than for sentiments as to what he wanted to have happen.
His veto of the Homestead act is defended by author, but apparently not by rest of historians. Per Klein the act was something that would benefit northerners only at expense of mostly southerners and was against all of Buchanan’s already established convictions. Klein also argues that the act was written in such a way that authors were wanting it vetoed by Buchanan so that that they could ridicule him over it and pump up a Republican candidate instead.
The eventual election of Lincoln led to South Carolina seceding, as Klein spends as much time on the last few months of his presidency as on the entire rest of the term. Per Klein, the congressional atmosphere in this time was purely obstructionist with no movement to accomplish anything productive. Coupled with Buchanan’s ideology of balance of powers and not usurping the roles of Congress, that led Buchanan’s chief “accomplishment” being keeping the Union from imploding.
After the secession, Buchanan struggled with the legality of the concept and had research done on what authority states had and what authority the federal government had to police this new movement. Buchanan did everything he could to not set off hostilities, including allowing a sitting cabinet member to travel to discuss his state seceding, not reinforcing South Carolina forts, and blaming the impending conflict on Lincoln and the radical Republicans. As he left office, he had neither reinforced or abandoned Fort Sumter, with his main goal being for nothing to happen while he was in office. 1/5
Vice President –. John Breckinridge was a surprise nomination as vice president, and like many from that era was not mentioned again for much of the book. 2/5
First Lady – Much has been speculated about Buchanan’s sexuality. As America’s only bachelor president, some historians have “determined” that he was in fact gay. After reading this book I would guess that to be correct, but there’s not enough information to prove or refute it. His lack of a love life was certainly interesting. His only engagement was to a very wealthy woman; she accused him of only being with her for her money and then dumped him when he came to the area she lived and didn’t visit her first. She then died mysteriously later the same day.
Also mentioned were a fling/crush with an 18 year old girl when he was about 50; Buchanan wrote her a poem about why it couldn’t work out between the two of them. Finally an attractive widow went to the White House to marry Buchanan, even ending up staying there for awhile, but ended up leaving later in Buchanan’s term unsuccessful in her bid. All the comments about their relationship were by her prior to her even meeting him.
Buchanan’s closest relationship was with Howell Cobb, who Buchanan revered as a man and a friend and would spend time with nearly every day they were in office together. 0/5
Post Presidency –Buchanan’s post-presidency was spent in retirement, with a focus on justifying his own term. This included commissioning multiple biographies about himself, none of which were ever completed (the first biography of Buchanan wasn’t released until after his death. The political climate was not one that favored praising Buchanan during the Civil War, and even his allies suggested he put his mission on the back burner which Buchanan mostly did. The one exception was in some letter writing with Winfield Scott as the two blamed each other for some handling of the South Carolina issue. 1/5
Book itself –I prefer a biography that is objective regarding its subject than one that is written from an obvious point of bias. That being said, I couldn’t help but feel that Klein was as unsure of his opinions of Buchanan as any biographer I’ve read. I’m sure it’s difficult to learn everything about a man and his justifications for his actions and still judge him critically, but I think Klein could have done a better job of doing so. The research here was obviously fantastic however, and I didn’t come away with questions about Buchanan’s actions. 3/5