James Buchanan, Bungling His Way to the Bottom

A new book explains why the 15th commander-in-chief was our worst. President. Ever.

It’s unlikely America will ever add James Buchanan to Mount Rushmore. The 15th president of the United States is universally regarded as a mediocre chief executive; ask author Robert Strauss and he’ll tell you Buchanan is the bottom of the barrel. Hence the title of his breezy and engaging new Buchanan biography from Lyons Press, Worst. President. Ever.

Strauss, a resident of Haddonfield (and frequent New Jersey Monthly contributor), makes a good case for Buchanan’s dubious distinction. He describes Buchanan as “a plodder,” a man prone to “incessant waffling and backtracking.” All of which might have been forgiven had he not been dithering at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue while the nation was being torn asunder by the slavery question.

Buchanan’s first major misstep concerned the Dred Scott decision, the Supreme Court case that helped precipitate the Civil War by affirming that black Americans—free or not—lacked the rights of citizens. Buchanan used his influence to sway at least one justice in favor of the decision, which was handed down two days after he took office in March 1857. Buchanan believed the decision, says Strauss, “would solve the slavery problem for good.”

Most of Buchanan’s bungles were masterpieces of inaction. He failed to act to stop the financial panic of 1857, refused to opine on whether Kansas should be admitted to the Union as a slave or free state, and turned his back when South Carolina seceded in December 1860 following the election of Abraham Lincoln. Buchanan had a brief window in which he could have fortified the Union military presence in the South, thereby possibly preventing the Civil War. Instead, he wavered, and six more Southern states seceded before Lincoln took office in March 1861.

It was the ultimate case of indecisiveness—“The worst thing you can do as president,” says Strauss, a student of the presidency since childhood. “I’m fascinated,” he says, “by the minutiae.”

Who sits atop Strauss’s list of American presidents? That would be George Washington. “Washington put everything together,” Strauss says. “Buchanan took everything apart.”

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