While ranking presidents is often a controversial exercise open to great amounts of interpretation, all rankers—and I say this with a certainty I’m usually loath to use when making historical remarks—rank James Buchanan low. Very low. If not dead last, second to last. If not that, third to last. Certainly and absolutely no higher than the bottom five. This is altogether a direct reflection of his perceived status as a president who, when confronted with the brewing Civil War that would kick off as he left office, sat on his hands and did absolutely nothing.
Taken out of the context surrounding the coming of the Civil War, this may come as a surprise. Buchanan’s political resume was, and remains, altogether wonderful, having served in numerous diplomatic posts, the House of Representatives, Senate, and as Secretary of State before his election. As unfortunate employers occasionally find, however, experience does not strictly make a successful employee. Unfortunately, Buchanan’s employer was the citizenry of the United States.
Such is the man about whom Professors John Quist of Shippensburg University and Michael Birkner of our own Gettysburg College spoke on the evening of March 31 at Gettysburg’s Joseph Theater in a talk sponsored by the Eisenhower Institute. In their dialogue on the much-criticized former president, they sought to complicate Buchanan’s caricatured image as a lollygagging executive using their book James Buchanan and the Coming of the Civil War, a collection of essays examining the president’s conduct in character in greater detail, as a springboard. While both Quist and Birkner made it clear that they had no desire to upend the conventional wisdom on the quality of Buchanan’s leadership, it is his characterization, they believe, which is need of an update.
Despite Buchanan’s reputation for dithering, Quist and Birkner argued that perhaps the opposite is more correct: that Buchanan was prone to rash decision-making with little concern for its consequences. They supported this claim with examples of Buchanan’s conduct during critical junctures of his presidency and immediate post presidency. Most notable among these examples were his role in lobbying the Supreme Court to vote along Southern lines for the Dredd Scot case, his support for pro-slavery Lecompton government in Kansas over the majority-supported anti-slavery Topeka government, and his ill-planned military venture against Brigham Young and the Mormons in Utah. All were instances were delicate and prudent planning would have likely won better results.
Buchanan made these decisions under the belief that what the nation needed was a strong and decisive leader to moderate what he viewed as the forces of both extreme abolitionists and extreme pro-slavery ideologues. Buchanan worked hard, the editors emphasized, to exert his influence upon the Democratic Party in order to ensure that his apparently middle-ground brand of politics would guide the party when he was gone (for he only ever intended to serve a single term). His support of the Dredd Scott decision was born out this legacy-seeking desire, for despite its ultimately obvious pro-slavery implications, Buchanan believed that the elimination of the question ‘Should there be slavery in the territories?’ would rob the Republican Party of one of its fundamental issues. By doing so, Buchanan hoped to reduce their electoral threat, allowing the success of his middle-ground Democratic Party, and thus marginalize the threat of extreme abolitionism. Clearly, this did not come to pass, illustrating another facet of Buchanan’s character: he was woefully out of touch with Northern public opinion.
His decision on Kansas further illustrated this, as he completely failed to anticipate the moral outrage of the northerners, both Democrats and Republicans alike, against his pro-Lecompton decision. Abolitionists naturally hated the decision due to their opposition to slavery, but proponents of popular sovereignty were enraged due to what they viewed as his flagrant disregard for democratic principles. The mass revulsion with which Buchanan came to be faced thus undermined his credibility in both parties and was, at least in Quist’s view, “his greatest failure as president.”
Buchanan’s actions in Utah were perhaps less self-defeating, for the truth of the matter was that Americans of the time simply did not trust or like the Mormons much. According to both Quist and Birkner, engaging them militarily on an even greater scale may have actually helped Buchanan politically. The overall operation to oust Young as governor of the territory was, however, badly planned from the get-go and very expensive for the national government in an administration that desired to reign in federal spending.
For Quist and Birkner, these three episodes served to characterize Buchanan not as the lay-about president the public remembers him as, but as a man with goals and plans, albeit ones that would be badly executed due to poor planning and consideration. Buchanan was not without his accomplishments, as they made clear: he was a strong prosecutor of the illegal Atlantic slave trade, a capable diplomat in his pre-presidency years, and during Lincoln’s administration, a strong supporter of the Union who never uttered a single negative remark against his successor.
Ultimately, however, Buchanan was certainly not a successful president. In Birkner’s words, “actions have consequences, and Buchanan’s had bad consequences.” As Quist and Birkner made clear from the beginning, they never intended to reverse the traditional judgment on Buchanan’s character. It seems fair, however, to at least give the man his due—if we must revile him, perhaps we should revile him for who he was, complexities and all, rather than what we only incorrectly remember him to be.