My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with James Buchanan, the Fifteenth President of the United States. The biography I chose with my selection process (reading reviews online and utilizing and this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies) was President James Buchanan: A Biography by Philip Shriver Klein.
Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to present my official ranking for the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!! The full list of the rankings with all the Presidents as well as comments on their careers, updated as I read through this list, may be found here.
President James Buchanan: A Biography by Philip Shriver Klein
Klein’s biography of Buchanan begins with some rather poignant words:
The man who elects to play the role of peacemaker may, if he succeeds, be soon buried in historical oblivion… A peacemaker who fails, on the other hand, is likely to receive for his efforts only resounding curses from both the warring camps. Such was the fate of James Buchanan.
Klein, in other words, is keen to show readers how Buchanan tirelessly worked to preserve the Union for war and, because he failed, has been cast into the bottoms of Presidential rankings for over a century. Is that the case? Was Buchanan’s cause worthy? Were his efforts, though ultimately in vain, laudable? These are questions that are definitional to how one will view the legacy of Buchanan.
Buchanan was largely a self-made man who spent his life as a bachelor. He grew up to become a lawyer and was rather successful at it, ultimately amassing enough reputation to begin transferring it to greater wealth. He managed his family’s household affairs, including using his own money when needed to loan to those in his family with needs. This, needless to say, did not make him the mot popular member of the family. Though, later in his life he encountered an almost Jane Austen-like affair where a former supporter became a bitter enemy and he settled it with all the aplomb and skill of one of her heroes. He embarked on a lengthy and highly successful political career even though he shared Andrew Jackson’s belief that the Presidency is something the nation ought to call one to rather than something one ought to strive for. His striving for this office is clear throughout his life. Though he spoke about the evils of slavery, he spent much of his political career placating and even enforcing laws favorable to the enslavers. He was an entirely mixed bag, and this makes it difficult to fully get at the man behind the layers.
Buchanan was firmly of the belief that Providence–that term so often assigned to the actions or determinations of the Divine–had given America to the Americans–by which he meant white men, of course. There were, after all, people living in those “unclaimed” parts of the country, but like many who had gone before him and too many afterwards, he didn’t value their lives. His attitudes on race were made clear by his comments about freed slaves, whom he joked should go live in Mexico where there would be “no prejudice” against them for their skin color. The message was loud and clear: white people mattered; others did not.
This is made even more clear in Buchanan’s peacemaking, which is at the center of Klein’s depiction of the man’s personality. For Buchanan, the way to peace was to utterly placate and give in to the demands of the South. Unlike Pierce, who put his every effort into compromise after compromise which ultimately failed to satisfy either party, Buchanan simply caved in to the demands of the South and supported many of their initiatives. For example, he advocated allowing postmasters to refuse to deliver abolitionist literature, arguing that such literature would encourage rising up against the government. In this, he was similar to Andrew Jackson, his occasional inspiration (though the latter simply looked the other way as postmasters did his illegally). Another example was Buchanan’s activity as a Senator to effectively end “agitation” for abolition in the Senate, basically ensuring a gag order on slavery therein.
As President, he continued his forebears policy of vigorously pursuing the Fugitive Slave Act, using the power of the government to re-enslave or sometimes even enslave free people (the laws were notoriously difficult to argue against even as someone who wasn’t the genuine “fugitive”).
Buchanan’s foreign policy is an interesting tell of his character. For one thing, he advocated for foreign leaders to free slaves in their countries, which apparently means Buchanan had almost no sense of irony whatsoever. As Senator, he helped negotiate a satisfactory commercial treaty with Great Britain for postal rates going across the ocean and helped bring a stop to illegal seizures on both sides of the ocean as well. He consistently pursued the acquisition of Cuba, even after it became extremely unpopular in the North. Buchanan saw Cuba as a land that could bring additional wealth and resources to the United States, while most Northerners and virtually all Southerners saw it as an opportunity for slavery to expand. Buchanan helped soften relations between Hawaii and the United States by rebuking a minister to Hawaii who effectively encouraged military action against the people of Hawaii.
For all of Buchanan’s political acumen, he and many of his ilk (Franklin Pierce, for example) who desired the perseverance of the Union over all else failed to take the abolitionists seriously. It was ultimately those pesky nuisances who swung the election and the tides of the country to Lincoln and, ultimately, to war. Buchanan encouraged Lincoln to maintain the Union and attempted 11th hour negotiations to preserve the Union even to the end.
What are we to make of this man, with all his rugged look and astute mind? A friend of mine made the comparison to Neville Chamberlain- was he wise for attempting peace? Could Hitler truly be pacified? Similarly, for Buchanan, is it wise to strive for peace with those who support an institution you personally believe is evil? Should you allow yourself to even become a belligerent in favor of said institution, enforcing laws that would bring people into slavery? Is that a price worth paying for a “peace” for your favored people? I think not. Though history may have judged Buchanan too harshly in some respects, it also seems to me there is a peace that is not worth having. When peace costs fellow humans a life of slavery leading too often to a harsh death, is it true peace? No.
Buchanan’s efforts were in vain, and they were arguably made in favor of something he ought not to have striven for anyway. Nevertheless, it is clear that new evaluations and insights into Buchanan’s life–and the period surrounding it–are needed, and fruitful research could continue in this era. Klein’s biography is fascinating, if decidedly tilted in favor of the man we learn about therein. The biography seems exhaustive, though Klein himself states he initially desired a multi-volume treatise, only narrowing its focus to try to appeal to a larger audience (the book is still over 400 pages). I recommend President James Buchanan: A Biography to you.
James Buchanan’s Original Ranking in THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES (Full and Updated List Here)
James Buchanan (15th President – Original Ranking #13)- Often ranked as the worst overall President, Buchanan’s legacy was demolished by the Civil War. He made every effort to preserve the Union, sometimes changing his position with the mood of the times, sometimes not. But always, he bowed to the interests of Southern states. The preservation of the Union was something he prized far more than the equality of people or the abolition of slavery, an institution he said he deplored and found evil but made every effort to preserve from the abolitionists. His biographer entitled a chapter “Cursed are the Peacemakers” in an attempt to point to his work for peace, but is peace a worthy goal with slavery? One’s answer to that question will largely determine what one thinks of Buchanan’s legacy.
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