The Man Some Call the Worst President in History

May 15, 2017

It’s no surprise that Abraham Lincoln is often ranked the best president in our nation’s history. But did you know there are two presidents who are often ranked neck to neck as the worst?

One of them is the guy who assumes the presidency following Lincoln’s assassination.

The other guy? Well, he was the president who came immediately before Abraham Lincoln.

His name was James Buchanan. And he was so bad that he paved the way for Abraham Lincoln and his historic greatness. So not only is Lincoln a tough act to follow, but as far as history is concerned, he’s a tough act to precede as well.

James Buchanan is our “president of the week” and is often ranked as the absolute worst president in our nation’s history. You’re about to find out why.

James Buchanan statue

Brittany’s son with the James Buchanan statue in downtown Rapid City, South Dakota

The Facts

James Buchanan, our first president from Pennsylvania, served from 1857-61. Our nation’s 15th president was, ironically, perhaps one of the most well-prepared men to hold the executive office.

He served his state legislature and both houses of Congress. He also served as a foreign minister (now known as a diplomat) and U.S. Secretary of State. His foreign service ended up being a huge asset in getting him elected to the presidency. Because he had been out of the country during such a controversial period of our nation’s history, he managed to stay out of the heat of the debate and therefore didn’t have any controversy to his name.

But his failures as president lie more in his personality than his resume.

James Buchanan painting

What Went Wrong

Buchanan’s wasn’t the first presidency to be ruined by the issue of slavery. But ironically, for a man who supposedly hated confrontation and avoided it like the plague, he is the one who ended up presiding over the start of the Civil War.

So where did Buchanan stand on the slavery issue? He was very much against it but because he was such a strict interpreter of the Constitution, he believed the document protected slavery (as property rights) and thought that was the end of it.

Though he was from the North, his views on slavery made him look like he sided with the South. Not only that, but many believed he failed to grasp the political realities of what was going on (i.e. that the decisions he made had serious political consequences, for starters). And that basically was the start of his undoing.

Many historians believe James Buchanan may have actually hastened the start of the Civil War, that perhaps if he’d put forth at least some effort to intervene that it could have gone differently. But, as you’re about to find out, he didn’t intervene. Not even the slightest.

Why not? Almost immediately after his inauguration, the Supreme Court issued the Dred Scott ruling. The Dred Scott case centered around the main issue of the day: was slavery allowed in the new western territories (i.e. were the new territories acquired the last couple decades going to be free or slave states?)?

Why was this case a big deal? Because the Supreme Court at the time was made up of a majority of southerners and pro-slavery justices. The Dred Scott case was interpreted as seeing slaves not as citizens but as property which meant that the court couldn’t deny slavery in the new territories because property could not be denied a person without due process of law.

Buchanan thought that the people would accept this decision and that would be the end of it and people would move on. However, that couldn’t have been further from the truth. What ended up happening was outrage and increasing tension pitted from the North to the South.

Buchanan decided to assert his authority and urge Kansas to be admitted as a slave-state. He somehow couldn’t see that this would enrage Republicans even further and two years later they took control of the House. This meant a government stalemate because everything Republicans tried to pass in the House was rejected by the Democratic controlled Senate or vetoed by President Buchanan, a Democrat.

During his presidency, seven states succeeded. He did nothing to stop them. Nothing. Whaaa? Seriously, President Buchanan? Nothing at all? He more or less stood by watching it all happen and afraid to do anything to stop it. Remember how he hated confrontation?

That tension continued to boil over during the next couple of years. Even the Democrats split in two and when it came time for another election, they each had their own candidate which ensured that Abraham Lincoln won the Republican’s nomination. Lincoln appeared no where on the Southern ballot but won the presidency anyway.

Rather than accept a Republican administration, the southerners vowed succession. Even the White House’s normally politically neutral tone on the history of each presidency, describes James Buchanan as reverting “to a policy of inactivity that continued until he left office.” In other words, he did absolutely nothing.

So, the worst president in history? You decide.

James Buchanan in his later years.

Historical Speculation

Did I mention James Buchanan was our only bachelor president? The evidence is weak, but many historians claim he may well have been our nation’s first gay president as well. Their “proof”: he never married. Back in the 1800s that was almost unheard of–unless there was a good reason for it.

Buchanan did have a fiance at one time (Ann Coleman). Shortly after they broke up, the fiance suddenly passed away. It was all sorts of mysterious. The doctor claimed it was hysterics and that he had never seen a case like it before. Was it a broken heart? Maybe that too. No one knows. It’s all speculation.

The other bit of “evidence” many claim proves he was a homosexual was that he was a longtime roommate of another man who also never married: do you remember the tragic death of Franklin Pierce’s vice president? William R. King was his name and he, oddly enough, was our nation’s only bachelor vice president.

King and Buchanan shared a home together for many years and it’s said they were known by various politicians as each other’s better haves and that King was often referred to as “Mrs. James Buchanan.” They were inseparable and it’s said that when King went overseas to serve as a foreign minister, Buchanan wrote him about not wanting to “woo” anyone else.

One of the reasons details of Buchanan’s life are so vague and mysterious is that in his will he ordered that upon his death all his correspondence be burned. So very few “first-hand” details exist of his personal life.

So, was he gay or not? Who knows?

Political Party

Democrat

Harriet Lane

James Buchanan’s niece, Harriet Lane

First Lady

Harriet Lane, his niece served as his “First Lady.” Her parents had both passed away and Buchanan assumed legal guardianship over her. She formed a strong friendship with William R. King’s niece and it’s said the two of them may have had a hand in vowing to burn the correspondence between their two uncles. She was only 27-years-old when she assumed the First Lady responsibilities.

Why James Buchanan Is Cool

Well, as I previously mentioned, no other president seemed more qualified to hold the office of president than James Buchanan. Sometimes what looks good on paper isn’t always what’s best for the job though. But, he seriously had an awesome political resume going into the job: He was elected five times to the House, served as Minister to Russia, then for a decade in the Senate. Afterward he served as James Polk’s Secretary of State and Franklin Pierce’s Minister to Great Britain.

For Kids

Why would President Buchanan be called the worst president in history? It’s a pretty harsh title, right? Well, explain to your kids that historians say it’s because of his record of taking little to no action on such important issues of the day (slavery).  Imagine your teacher watching arguments break out all over your class at school and doing nothing to stop it. She’d likely not win any “teacher of the year” awards. Do you think it’s fair President Buchanan earned his nickname? Why? Why not?

Sources:

Recently, I discovered a gem of a podcast! It’s a series by The Washington Post that was done leading up to the latest election. They go in-depth on each president and talk to experts, historians, etc. Oh my goodness, it is awesome! If you are even the slightest bit interested in history, I suggest checking it out. You can find it here. The James Buchanan issue mainly discusses the evidence for him being gay. It’s pretty interesting.

As I usually mention, I have this really awesome book I love that I bought in the Mount Rushmore gift shop. It’s a small, easy to read book aptly titled The Presidents of the United States of America. Find it here. It probably has the most thorough, in-depth summary of each president all neatly packaged into a single page for each. I love it!

Also, like I’ve mentioned before, the History Channel has an amazing documentary on the lives of each of our presidents. I’ve been watching it every single week. It is seriously fascinating. You can find it here. It’s a great watch for younger kids and especially any older kids who are learning about our American history. They also have a more condensed and less expensive version that you can find here. Both versions are great because they both have different information about each president.

Other sources are linked throughout.

Author: Brittany

Former White House and Capitol Hill staffer, wife, and mom.

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