President James Buchanan, The worst of the worst


I have written several articles on our Presidents and Vice-Presidents. A list of the links have been provided at the bottom of this article for your convenience. This article will, however address additional Presidents and their places in history.

This is going to be my last in my articles about presidents, well maybe. I am sure I will write articles about President Trump and His successor, whoever that will be. God help us if it is Biden. What a better place to stop but at the bottom. Maybe gravity got us here, I don’t know. I always like to look for the best in people, but if we are to believe all the historic accounts of Buchanan, this is going to be a difficult task. And for all you Trump Haters, He is not the worst president, he might be one of the most arrogant presidents, though I think that award surely goes to LBJ.

James Buchanan Jr. was an American lawyer and politician who served as the 15th president of the United States (1857–1861). He previously served as Secretary of State (1845–1849) and represented Pennsylvania in both houses of the U.S. Congress. He was a states’ rights advocate, and minimized the role of the federal government in the nation’s closing era of slavery. He is therefore consistently ranked by historians as one of the least effective presidents in history, for his failure to mitigate the national disunity that led to the American Civil War.

Buchanan was a prominent lawyer in Pennsylvania and won his first election to the state’s House of Representatives as a Federalist. In 1820, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and retained that post for 11 years, aligning with Andrew Jackson‘s Democratic Party. He served as Jackson’s Minister to Russia (1832). He won election in 1834 as a U.S. senator from Pennsylvania and also held that position for 11 years. In 1845 he was appointed to serve as President James K. Polk‘s Secretary of State, and in 1853 he was named as President Franklin Pierce‘s Minister to the United Kingdom.

Beginning in 1844 Buchanan became a regular contender for the Democratic party’s presidential nomination. He was finally nominated in 1856, defeating incumbent Franklin Pierce and Senator Stephen A. Douglas at the Democratic National Convention. Buchanan and running mate John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky defeated Republican John C. Frémont and Know-Nothing former president Millard Fillmore to win the 1856 presidential election.

Buchanan supported the decision of the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott case, which denied a slave’s petition for freedom. He also joined with Southern leaders in attempting to admit Kansas to the Union as a slave state. He thereby angered not only the Republicans but also many Northern Democrats. Buchanan honored his pledge to serve only one term, and supported Breckinridge’s unsuccessful candidacy in the 1860 presidential election, which was won by Republican Abraham Lincoln. Just weeks after Lincoln was elected as Buchanan’s successor, Southern states began seceding from the U.S., and the American Civil War started. Historians fault Buchanan for not addressing the issue of slavery, and for not forestalling the secession.

James Buchanan Jr. was born April 23, 1791 in a log cabin in Cove Gap, Pennsylvania, to James Buchanan Sr. and Elizabeth Speer. His parents were both of Ulster Scot descent; his father emigrated from MilfordIreland in 1783. Shortly after Buchanan’s birth the family moved to a farm near Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, and in 1794 the family moved into the town. His father became the wealthiest resident there, as a merchant, farmer, and real estate investor.

Buchanan attended the Old Stone Academy and then Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He was nearly expelled for bad behavior, but pleaded for a second chance and ultimately graduated with honors on September 19, 1809. Later that year he moved to the state capital at Lancaster. James Hopkins, a leading lawyer there, accepted Buchanan as an apprentice, and in 1812 he was admitted to the Pennsylvania bar. Many other lawyers moved to Harrisburg when it became the state capital in 1812, but Buchanan made Lancaster his lifelong home. His income rapidly rose after he established his practice, and by 1821 he was earning over $11,000 per year (equivalent to $210,000 in 2019). He handled various types of cases, including a much-publicized impeachment trial, where he successfully defended Pennsylvania Judge Walter Franklin.

Political Career

Buchanan began his political career as a member of the Federalist Party, and was elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives (1814–1816). The legislature met for only three months a year, but Buchanan’s service helped him acquire more clients. Politically, he supported federally-funded internal improvements, a high tariff, and a national bank. He became a strong critic of Democratic-Republican President James Madison during the War of 1812. He was a Freemason, and served as the Master of Masonic Lodge No. 43 in Lancaster, and as a District Deputy Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania.

In 1820 Buchanan ran for the U.S. House of Representatives and won, though his Federalist Party was waning. During his tenure in Congress, he became a supporter of Andrew Jackson and an avid defender of states’ rights. After the 1824 presidential election, he helped organize Jackson’s followers into the Democratic Party, and he became a prominent Pennsylvania Democrat. In Washington, he was personally close with many southern Congressmen, and viewed some New England Congressmen as dangerous radicals. He was appointed to the Committee of Agriculture in his first year, and he eventually became Chairman of the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary. He declined re-nomination to a sixth term, and briefly returned to private life.

After Jackson was re-elected in 1832, he offered Buchanan the position of United States Ambassador to Russia. Buchanan was reluctant to leave the country but ultimately agreed. He served as ambassador for 18 months, during which time he learned French, the trade language of diplomacy in the nineteenth century. He helped negotiate commercial and maritime treaties with the Russian Empire.

Buchanan returned home and was elected by the Pennsylvania state legislature to succeed William Wilkins in the U. S. Senate. Wilkins in turn replaced Buchanan as the ambassador to Russia. The Jacksonian Buchanan, who was re-elected in 1836 and 1842, opposed the re-chartering of the Second Bank of the United States and sought to expunge a congressional censure of Jackson stemming from the Bank War.

Buchanan also opposed a gag rule sponsored by John C. Calhoun that would have suppressed anti-slavery petitions. He joined the majority in blocking the rule, with most senators of the belief that it would have the reverse effect of strengthening the abolitionists. He said, “We have just as little right to interfere with slavery in the South, as we have to touch the right of petition.” Buchanan thought that the issue of slavery was the domain of the states, and he faulted abolitionists for exciting passions over the issue.

His support of states’ rights was matched by his support for Manifest Destiny, and he opposed the Webster–Ashburton Treaty for its “surrender” of lands to the United Kingdom. Buchanan also argued for the annexation of both Texas and the Oregon Country. In the lead-up to the 1844 Democratic National Convention, Buchanan positioned himself as a potential alternative to former President Martin Van Buren, but the nomination went to James K. Polk, who won the election.

Buchanan was offered the position of Secretary of State in the Polk administration, as well as the alternative of serving on the Supreme Court. He accepted the State Department post and served for the duration of Polk’s single term in office. He and Polk nearly doubled the territory of the United States through the Oregon Treaty and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which included territory that is now Texas, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado. In negotiations with Britain over Oregon, Buchanan at first favored a compromise, but later advocated for annexation of the entire territory. Eventually, he agreed to a division at the 49th parallel. After the outbreak of the Mexican–American War, he advised Polk against taking territory south of the Rio Grande River and New Mexico. However, as the war came to an end, Buchanan argued for the annexation of further territory, and Polk began to suspect that Buchanan was primarily angling to become president. Buchanan did quietly seek the nomination at the 1848 Democratic National Convention, as Polk had promised to serve only one term, but Senator Lewis Cass of Michigan was nominated.

With the 1848 election of Whig Zachary Taylor, Buchanan returned to private life. He bought the house of Wheatland on the outskirts of Lancaster and entertained various visitors, while monitoring political events. In 1852, he was named president of the Board of Trustees of Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, and he served in this capacity until 1866. He quietly campaigned for the 1852 Democratic presidential nomination, writing a public letter that deplored the Wilmot Proviso, which proposed to ban slavery in new territories. He became known as a “doughface” due to his sympathy towards the South. At the 1852 Democratic National Convention, he won the support of many southern delegates but failed to win the two-thirds support needed for the presidential nomination, which went to Franklin Pierce. Buchanan declined to serve as the vice presidential nominee, and the convention instead nominated his close friend, William King. Pierce won the 1852 election, and he accepted the position of United States Minister to the United Kingdom.

Buchanan’s service abroad allowed him to conveniently avoid the debate over the Kansas–Nebraska Act then roiling the country in the slavery dispute . While he did not overtly seek the presidency, he assented to the movement on his behalf. The 1856 Democratic National Convention met in June 1856, producing a platform that reflected his views, including support for the Fugitive Slave Law, which required the return of escaped slaves. The platform also called for an end to anti-slavery agitation, and U.S. “ascendancy in the Gulf of Mexico.” President Pierce hoped for re-nomination, while Senator Stephen A. Douglas also loomed as a strong candidate. Buchanan led on the first ballot, boosted by the support of powerful Senators John SlidellJesse Bright, and Thomas F. Bayard, who presented Buchanan as an experienced leader appealing to the North and South. He won the nomination after seventeen ballots. He was joined on the ticket by John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, in order to placate supporters of Pierce and Douglas, with whom Breckinridge had been allied.

Buchanan faced two candidates in the general election: former Whig President Millard Fillmore ran as the American Party (or “Know-Nothing“) candidate, while John C. Frémont ran as the Republican nominee. Buchanan did not actively campaign, but he wrote letters and pledged to uphold the Democratic platform. In the election, he carried every slave state except for Maryland, as well as five slavery-free states, including his home state of Pennsylvania. He won 45 percent of the popular vote and decisively won the electoral vote, taking 174 of 296 votes. His election made him the only president from Pennsylvania. In a combative victory speech, Buchanan denounced Republicans, calling them a “dangerous” and “geographical” party that had unfairly attacked the South. He also declared, “the object of my administration will be to destroy sectional party, North or South, and to restore harmony to the Union under a national and conservative government.” He set about this initially by feigning a sectional balance in his cabinet appointments.


Buchanan was inaugurated on March 4, 1857, taking the oath of office from Chief JusticeRoger B. Taney. In his inaugural address, Buchanan committed himself to serving only one term, as his predecessor had done. He expressed an abhorrence for the growing divisions over slavery and its status in the territories, while saying that Congress should play no role in determining the status of slavery in the states or territories. He also declared his support for popular sovereignty. Buchanan recommended that a federal slave code be enacted to protect the rights of slave-owners in federal territories. He alluded to a then-pending Supreme Court case, Dred Scott v. Sandford, which he said would permanently settle the issue of slavery. Dred Scott was a slave who was temporarily taken from a slave state to a free territory by his owner, John Sanford (the court misspelled his name). After Scott returned to the slave state, he filed a petition for his freedom based on his time in the free territory. The Dred Scott decision, rendered after Buchanan’s speech, denied Scott’s petition in favor of his owner.

As his inauguration approached, Buchanan sought to establish an obedient, harmonious cabinet, to avoid the in-fighting that had plagued Andrew Jackson‘s administration. He chose four Southerners and three Northerners, the latter of whom were all considered to be doughfaces (Southern sympathizers). His objective was to dominate the cabinet, and he chose men who would agree with his views. Concentrating on foreign policy, he appointed the aging Lewis Cass as Secretary of State. Buchanan’s appointment of Southerners and their allies alienated many in the North, and his failure to appoint any followers of Stephen Douglas divided the party. Outside of the cabinet, he left in place many of Pierce’s appointments, but removed a disproportionate number of Northerners who had ties to Democrat opponents Pierce or Douglas. In that vein, he soon alienated their ally, and his vice president, Breckinridge; the latter therefore played little role in the administration.

Two days after Buchanan’s inauguration, Chief Justice Taney delivered the Dred Scott decision, denying the enslaved petitioner’s request for freedom. The ruling broadly asserted that Congress had no constitutional power to exclude slavery in the territories. Prior to his inauguration, Buchanan had written to Justice John Catron in January 1857, inquired about the outcome of the case, and suggested that a broader decision, beyond the specifics of the case, would be more prudent. Buchanan hoped that a broad decision protecting slavery in the territories could lay the issue to rest, allowing him to focus on other issues.

Catron, who was from Tennessee, replied on February 10, saying that the Supreme Court’s Southern majority would decide against Scott, but would likely have to publish the decision on narrow grounds unless Buchanan could convince his fellow Pennsylvanian, Justice Robert Cooper Grier, to join the majority of the court. Buchanan then wrote to Grier and prevailed upon him, providing the majority leverage to issue a broad-ranging decision, sufficient to render the Missouri Compromise of 1820 unconstitutional. Buchanan’s letters were not then public; he was, however, seen at his inauguration in whispered conversation with the Chief Justice. When the decision was issued, Republicans began spreading word that Taney had revealed to Buchanan the forthcoming result. Rather than destroying the Republican platform as Buchanan had hoped, the decision outraged Northerners who denounced it.

The Panic of 1857 began in the summer of that year, ushered in by the collapse of 1,400 state banks and 5,000 businesses. While the South escaped largely unscathed, numerous northern cities experienced drastic increases in unemployment. Buchanan agreed with the southerners who attributed the economic collapse to over speculation.

Reflecting his Jacksonian background, Buchanan’s response was “reform not relief.” While the government was “without the power to extend relief,” it would continue to pay its debts in specie, and while it would not curtail public works, none would be added. In hopes of reducing paper money supplies and inflation, he urged the states to restrict the banks to a credit level of $3 to $1 of specie and discouraged the use of federal or state bonds as security for bank note issues. The economy recovered in several years, though many Americans suffered as a result of the panic. Buchanan had hoped to reduce the deficit, but by the time he left office the federal deficit stood at $17 million.

The Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854 created the Kansas Territory and allowed the settlers there to decide whether to allow slavery. This resulted in violence between “Free-Soil” (antislavery) and proslavery settlers, which developed into the “Bleeding Kansas” crisis. The antislavery settlers, with the help of Northern abolitionists, organized a government in Topeka. The more numerous proslavery settlers, many from the neighboring slave state Missouri, established a government in Lecompton, giving the Territory two different governments for a time, with two distinct constitutions, each claiming legitimacy.

The admission of Kansas as a state required a constitution be submitted to Congress with the approval of a majority of its residents. Under President Pierce, a series of violent confrontations escalated over who had the right to vote in Kansas. The situation drew national attention, and some in Georgia and Mississippi advocated secession should Kansas be admitted as a free state. Buchanan chose to endorse the pro-slavery Lecompton government.

Buchanan appointed Robert J. Walker to replace John W. Geary as territorial governor, with the expectation he would assist the proslavery faction in gaining approval of a new constitution. However, Walker wavered on the slavery question, and there ensued conflicting referendums from Topeka and Lecompton, where election fraud occurred. In October 1857, the Lecompton government framed the pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution and sent it to Buchanan without a referendum. Buchanan reluctantly rejected it, and he dispatched federal agents to arrange a compromise. The Lecompton government agreed to a referendum limited solely to the slavery question.

Despite the protests of Walker and two former Kansas governors, Buchanan decided to accept the Lecompton Constitution. In a December 1857 meeting with Stephen Douglas, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Territories, Buchanan demanded that all Democrats support the administration’s position of admitting Kansas under the Lecompton Constitution. On February 2, he transmitted the Lecompton Constitution to Congress. He also transmitted a message that attacked the “revolutionary government” in Topeka, conflating them with the Mormons in Utah. Buchanan made every effort to secure congressional approval, offering favors, patronage appointments, and even cash for votes. The Lecompton Constitution won the approval of the Senate in March, but a combination of Know-Nothings, Republicans, and northern Democrats defeated the bill in the House. Rather than accepting defeat, Buchanan backed the 1858 English Bill, which offered Kansans immediate statehood and vast public lands in exchange for accepting the Lecompton Constitution. In August 1858, Kansans by referendum strongly rejected the Lecompton Constitution.

The dispute over Kansas became the battlefront for control of the Democratic Party. On one side were Buchanan, most Southern Democrats, and the “doughfaces”. On the other side were Douglas and most northern Democrats plus a few Southerners. Douglas’s faction continued to support the doctrine of popular sovereignty, while Buchanan insisted that Democrats respect the Dred Scott decision and its repudiation of federal interference with slavery in the territories. The struggle ended only with Buchanan’s presidency. In the interim he used his patronage powers to remove Douglas sympathizers in Illinois and Washington, D.C., and installed pro-administration Democrats, including postmasters.

The division between northern and southern Democrats allowed the Republicans to win a plurality of the House in the 1858 elections, and allowed them to block most of Buchanan’s agenda. Buchanan, in turn, added to the hostility with his veto of six substantial pieces of Republican legislation. Among these measures were the Homestead Act, which would have given 160 acres of public land to settlers who remained on the land for five years, and the Morrill Act, which would have granted public lands to establish land-grant colleges. Buchanan argued that these acts were unconstitutional.

In March 1860, the House impaneled the Covode Committee to investigate the administration for alleged impeachable offenses, such as bribery and extortion of representatives. The committee, three Republicans and two Democrats, was accused by Buchanan’s supporters of being nakedly partisan; they charged its chairman, Republican Rep. John Covode, with acting on a personal grudge from a disputed land grant designed to benefit Covode’s railroad company. The Democratic committee members, as well as Democratic witnesses, were enthusiastic in their condemnation of Buchanan.

The committee was unable to establish grounds for impeaching Buchanan; however, the majority report issued on June 17 alleged corruption and abuse of power among members of his cabinet. The report also included accusations from Republicans, that Buchanan had attempted to bribe members of Congress in connection with the Lecompton constitution. The Democrats pointed out that evidence was scarce, but did not refute the allegations; one of the Democratic members, Rep. James Robinson, stated that he agreed with the Republicans, though he did not sign it.

Buchanan claimed to have “passed triumphantly through this ordeal” with complete vindication. Republican operatives distributed thousands of copies of the Covode Committee report throughout the nation as campaign material in that year’s presidential election.


With Lincoln’s victory, talk of secession and disunion reached a boiling point, putting the burden on Buchanan to address it in his final speech to Congress, which was anticipated by both factions. In his message, Buchanan denied the right of states to secede but maintained the federal government was without power to prevent them. He placed the blame for the crisis solely on “intemperate interference of the Northern people with the question of slavery in the Southern States,” and suggested that if they did not “repeal their unconstitutional and obnoxious enactments … the injured States, after having first used all peaceful and constitutional means to obtain redress, would be justified in revolutionary resistance to the Government of the Union.” Buchanan’s only suggestion to solve the crisis was “an explanatory amendment” affirming the constitutionality of slavery in the states, the fugitive slave laws, and popular sovereignty in the territories. His address was sharply criticized both by the north, for its refusal to stop secession, and the south, for denying its right to secede. Five days after the address was delivered, Treasury Secretary Howell Cobb resigned, as his views had become irreconcilable with the President’s.

South Carolina, long the most radical southern state, seceded from the union on December 20, 1860. However, unionist sentiment remained strong among many in the South, and Buchanan sought to appeal to the southern moderates who might prevent secession in other states. He proposed passage of constitutional amendments protecting slavery in the states and territories. He also met with South Carolinian commissioners in an attempt to resolve the situation at Fort Sumter, which federal forces remained in control of despite its location in Charleston, South Carolina. He refused to dismiss Interior Secretary Jacob Thompson after the latter was chosen as Mississippi’s agent to discuss secession, and he refused to fire Secretary of War John B. Floyd despite an embezzlement scandal. Floyd ended up resigning, but not before sending numerous firearms to southern states, where they eventually fell into the hands of the Confederacy. Despite Floyd’s resignation, Buchanan continued to seek the advice of counselors from the Deep South, including Jefferson Davis and William Henry Trescot.

Efforts were made in vain by Sen. John J. Crittenden, Rep. Thomas Corwin, and former president John Tyler to negotiate a compromise to stop secession, with Buchanan’s support. Failed attempts were also made by a group of governors meeting in New York. Buchanan secretly asked President-elect Lincoln to call for a national referendum on the issue of slavery, but Lincoln declined.

Despite the efforts of Buchanan and others, six more slave states seceded by the end of January 1861. Buchanan replaced the departed southern cabinet members with John Adams DixEdwin M. Stanton, and Joseph Holt, all of whom were committed to preserving the union. When Buchanan considered surrendering Fort Sumter, the new cabinet members threatened to resign, and Buchanan relented. On January 5, Buchanan decided to reinforce Fort Sumter, sending the Star of the West with 250 men and supplies. However, he failed to ask Major Robert Anderson to provide covering fire for the ship, and it was forced to return North without delivering troops or supplies. Buchanan chose not to respond to this act of war, and instead sought to find a compromise to avoid secession. He received a March 3 message from Anderson, that supplies were running low, but the response became Lincoln’s to make, as the latter succeeded to the presidency the next day. On March 2, 1861, Congress approved an amendment to the United States Constitution that would shield “domestic institutions” of the states, including slavery, from the constitutional amendment process and from abolition or interference by Congress. The proposed amendment was submitted to the state legislatures for ratification. Commonly known as the Corwin Amendment, it was never ratified by the requisite number of states.

Final Years

The Civil War erupted within two months of Buchanan’s retirement. He supported the Union, writing to former colleagues that, “the assault upon Sumter was the commencement of war by the Confederate states, and no alternative was left but to prosecute it with vigor on our part.” He also wrote a letter to his fellow Pennsylvania Democrats, urging them to “join the many thousands of brave & patriotic volunteers who are already in the field.”

Buchanan was dedicated to defending his actions prior to the Civil War, which was referred to by some as “Buchanan’s War.” He received threatening letters daily, and stores displayed Buchanan’s likeness with the eyes inked red, a noose drawn around his neck and the word “TRAITOR” written across his forehead. The Senate proposed a resolution of condemnation which ultimately failed, and newspapers accused him of colluding with the Confederacy. His former cabinet members, five of whom had been given jobs in the Lincoln administration, refused to defend Buchanan publicly.

Buchanan became distraught by the vitriolic attacks levied against him, and fell sick and depressed. In October 1862, he defended himself in an exchange of letters with Winfield Scott, published in the National Intelligencer. He soon began writing his fullest public defense, in the form of his memoir Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of Rebellion, which was published in 1866.

Political Views

Buchanan was often considered by anti-slavery northerners a “doughface“, a northern man with pro-southern principles. Shortly after his election, he said that the “great object” of his administration was “to arrest, if possible, the agitation of the Slavery question in the North and to destroy sectional parties.” Buchanan believed the abolitionists were preventing the solution to the slavery problem. He stated, “Before [the abolitionists] commenced this agitation, a very large and growing party existed in several of the slave states in favor of the gradual abolition of slavery; and now not a voice is heard there in support of such a measure. The abolitionists have postponed the emancipation of the slaves in three or four states for at least half a century.” In deference to the intentions of the typical slaveholder, he was willing to provide the benefit of the doubt. In his third annual message to Congress, the president claimed that the slaves were “treated with kindness and humanity. … Both the philanthropy and the self-interest of the master have combined to produce this humane result.”

Buchanan thought restraint was the essence of good self-government. He believed the constitution comprised “… restraints, imposed not by arbitrary authority, but by the people upon themselves and their representatives. … In an enlarged view, the people’s interests may seem identical, but to the eye of local and sectional prejudice, they always appear to be conflicting … and the jealousies that will perpetually arise can be repressed only by the mutual forbearance which pervades the constitution.” Regarding slavery and the Constitution, he stated: “Although in Pennsylvania we are all opposed to slavery in the abstract, we can never violate the constitutional compact we have with our sister states. Their rights will be held sacred by us. Under the constitution it is their own question; and there let it remain.”

One of the prominent issues of the day was tariffs. Buchanan was conflicted by free trade as well as prohibitive tariffs, since either would benefit one section of the country to the detriment of the other. As a senator from Pennsylvania, he said: “I am viewed as the strongest advocate of protection in other states, whilst I am denounced as its enemy in Pennsylvania.”

Buchanan was also torn between his desire to expand the country for the general welfare of the nation, and to guarantee the rights of the people settling particular areas. On territorial expansion, he said, “What, sir? Prevent the people from crossing the Rocky Mountains? You might just as well command the Niagara not to flow. We must fulfill our destiny.” On the resulting spread of slavery, through unconditional expansion, he stated: “I feel a strong repugnance by any act of mine to extend the present limits of the Union over a new slave-holding territory.” For instance, he hoped the acquisition of Texas would “be the means of limiting, not enlarging, the dominion of slavery.”

Historical Reputation

Why he is considered the worst president:

(1) He called Mormons terrorist and declared war on them

(2) He arrested his own agent that he made take over Nicaragua

(3)  He was extremely racist, and possibly influenced the Dred Scott case

(4) He did nothing to stop the Civil War, and left it for Abraham Lincoln to deal with it. He said the states had no right to succeed, he didn’t do anything to stop them.

(5) poor choice of friends ie southern democrats and he therefore underestimated the animosity felt by the growing population in the free states. He also exacerbated the conflict within the Democratic Party.

(6) His role in the Lecompton Constitution*

(7) He went from a surplus in the federal budget to deficit spending and almost tripling the deficit

Though Buchanan predicted that “history will vindicate my memory,” historians have criticized Buchanan for his unwillingness or inability to act in the face of secession. Historical rankings of presidents of the United States without exception place Buchanan among the least successful presidents. When scholars are surveyed, he ranks at or near the bottom in terms of vision/agenda-setting, domestic leadership, foreign policy leadership, moral authority, and positive historical significance of their legacy. In several of these polls, Buchanan is ranked as the worst president in U.S. history.

Buchanan biographer Philip Klein focuses upon challenges Buchanan faced:

Buchanan assumed leadership … when an unprecedented wave of angry passion was sweeping over the nation. That he held the hostile sections in check during these revolutionary times was in itself a remarkable achievement. His weaknesses in the stormy years of his presidency were magnified by enraged partisans of the North and South. His many talents, which in a quieter era might have gained for him a place among the great presidents, were quickly overshadowed by the cataclysmic events of civil war and by the towering Abraham Lincoln.

Biographer Jean Baker is less charitable to Buchanan, saying in 2004:

Americans have conveniently misled themselves about the presidency of James Buchanan, preferring to classify him as indecisive and inactive … In fact Buchanan’s failing during the crisis over the Union was not inactivity, but rather his partiality for the South, a favoritism that bordered on disloyalty in an officer pledged to defend all the United States. He was that most dangerous of chief executives, a stubborn, mistaken ideologue whose principles held no room for compromise. His experience in government had only rendered him too self-confident to consider other views. In his betrayal of the national trust, Buchanan came closer to committing treason than any other president in American history.

Slavery made the presidency an incredibly difficult task in the mid-19th century. The debate over it disrupted American society. In this volatile atmosphere, strong presidential leadership might have saved the nation from civil war if it had been exercised early and firmly enough to warn off radicals on both sides. By refusing to take a firm stand on either side of the slavery issue, Buchanan failed to resolve the question, leaving his nation’s gravest crisis to his successor. Indeed, Buchanan’s passivity is considered by most historians to have been a prime contributing factor in the coming of the Civil War. To many, Buchanan seemed like a Northerner in name only: He openly despised abolitionists. Southerners were his political and social friends, and when forced to take sides in one of the endless slavery battles, he typically sided with Southern interests.

James Buchanan was a talented and skillful politician. He also was honest, had considerable legal ability, and could balance varying coalition agendas. In a different time, he might have been a successful President, but he was no match for the forces that tore at the country in the late 1850s.

As observed by President Herbert Hoover at the dedication of a statue honoring Buchanan, June 26, 1930: “James Buchanan occupied the presidency at a moment when no human power could have stayed the inexorable advance of great national conflict. The black clouds of dissension had gathered over the country when he entered upon his duties. The thunderbolts of war were withheld until he left the scene, but throughout his administration the sky was clouded with the ominous threatening of storm.”

Many historians believed that the secession of the south from the Union was a foregone conclusion. I don’t agree. It could have been stopped by a strong president. Buchanan was not that person. he made one misstep after another. He seemed to be on the wrong side of every argument or crisis that came up in his presidency. He sided with the South on the slavery issue, knowing full well that slavery was a morally reprehensible institution. He allowed the expansion of slavery to continue with the admission of new states in the Union. When I started this article I had in my mind giving him 1 out of 5 stars. I decided he deserved a little better than that.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5 stars

Resources:, ” James Buchanan,” By Wikipedia editors;, “JAMES BUCHANAN: IMPACT AND LEGACY,” By William Cooper;, “Was Lancaster’s own Buchanan really the worst US president?” By Donald Walters;, “Why James Buchanan Is the Worst President in US History,” By Callan Kehoe;, “Lecompton Constitution,” By Wikipedia editors;


*The Lecompton Constitution (1857) was one of four proposed constitutions for the state of Kansas. It was drafted by pro-slavery advocates and included provisions to protect slaveholding in the state and to exclude free blacks from its bill of rights. It was initially approved in a rigged election in December 1857, but overwhelmingly defeated in a second vote in January 1858 by a majority of voters in the Kansas Territory. The rejection of the Lecompton Constitution, and the subsequent admittance of Kansas to the Union as a free state, highlighted the irregular and fraudulent voting practices that had marked earlier efforts by bushwhackers and border ruffians to create a state constitution in Kansas that allowed slavery.

The Lecompton Constitution was preceded by the Topeka Constitution and was followed by the Leavenworth and Wyandotte Constitutions, the Wyandotte becoming the Kansas state constitution. The document was written in response to the anti-slavery position of the 1855 Topeka Constitution of James H. Lane and other free-state advocates. The territorial legislature, consisting mostly of slave owners, met at the designated capital of Lecompton in September 1857 to produce a rival document. Free-state supporters, who comprised a large majority of actual settlers, boycotted the vote. President James Buchanan’s appointee as territorial governor of Kansas, Robert J. Walker, although a strong defender of slavery, opposed the blatant injustice of the Constitution and resigned rather than implement it. This new constitution enshrined slavery in the proposed state and protected the rights of slaveholders. In addition, the constitution provided for a referendum that allowed voters the choice of allowing more slaves to enter the territory.

Both the Topeka and Lecompton constitutions were placed before the people of the Kansas Territory for a vote, and both votes were boycotted by supporters of the opposing faction. In the case of Lecompton, however, the vote was boiled down to a single issue, expressed on the ballot as “Constitution with Slavery” v. “Constitution with no Slavery.” But the “Constitution with no Slavery” clause would have not made Kansas a free state; it merely would have banned future importation of slaves into Kansas (something deemed by many as unenforceable). Boycotted by free-soilers, the referendum suffered from serious voting irregularities, with over half the 6,000 votes deemed fraudulent. Nevertheless, both it and the Topeka Constitution were sent to Washington for approval by Congress.

A vocal supporter of slaveholder rights, President James Buchanan endorsed the Lecompton Constitution before Congress. While the president received the support of the Southern Democrats, many Northern Democrats, led by Stephen A. Douglas, sided with the Republicans in opposition to the constitution. Douglas was helped considerably by the work of Thomas Ewing Jr., a noted Kansas Free State politician and lawyer, who led a legislative investigation in Kansas to uncover the fraudulent voting ballots. A new referendum over the fate of the Lecompton Constitution was proposed, even though this would delay Kansas’s admission to the Union. Furthermore, a new constitution, the anti-slavery Leavenworth Constitution, was already being drafted. On 4 January 1858, Kansas voters, having the opportunity to reject the constitution altogether in the referendum, overwhelmingly rejected the Lecompton proposal by a vote of 10,226 to 138. And in Washington, the Lecompton constitution was defeated by the federal House of Representatives in 1858. Though soundly defeated, debate over the proposed constitution had ripped apart the Democratic party. Kansas was admitted to the Union as a free state in 1861.

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