James Buchanan by Jean H. Baker
A common pitfall of many presidential biographies (or really any biography) is coming to know and admire your subject so much that the work suffers for it, becoming less a balanced examination of someone’s life and more a hagiographic tribute. Well, I’m happy to say the Jean H. Baker’s concise look at the life of President James Buchanan is in no danger of committing that common defect.
In fact, it’s clear throughout that Baker thinks Buchanan was a terrible president. And, let’s face it, she’s in pretty good company. Buchanan ranks in the bottom tier in nearly every scholarly survey of U.S. presidents, rivaled only by Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce and Warren Harding in ill-regard.
That being said, Baker makes a compelling case.
It all began well enough. Buchanan was amongst the most well-qualified presidents Americans ever elected. After completing law school and being admitted to the Pennsylvania bar in 1812, Buchanan would go on to serve in the Pennsylvania legislature and then the U.S. House of Representatives for the next decade. In 1828, Andrew Jackson appointed him minister to Russia and upon his return in 1834 he was elected to the Senate. He would go on to serve as James K. Polk’s Secretary of State in 1845 before being elected president of the United States in 1854.
Unfortunately, Buchanan harbored a lifelong sympathy for not only the South, but the Southern way of life, slavery included. As a Northern Democrat, this stance served to not only split his party along sectional lines (leading to the election of Republican Abraham Lincoln) but also led to a series of decisions that exacerbated the tensions that led to the Civil War.
Right out of the gate, just before his inauguration, Buchanan applied pressure to one of the Northern justices hearing the Dredd Scott case in the U.S. Supreme Court to side with the Southern majority. Buchanan wanted to end the slavery debate once and for all and felt that a decision that transcended sectional lines would do just that. Forget for a minute that the decision that Buchanan was lobbying for was one of the most dreadful in the court’s history (it effectively declared that the federal government had no power to regulate slavery in the territories and denied African Americans any rights as U.S. citizens), but the use of the executive office in the this manner seemed to directly contradict Buchanan’s staunch constructionist view of the Constitution.
Of course, the Dredd Scott decision had the exact opposite effect of what Buchanan hoped for. Instead of settling the debate, it inflamed it, as infuriated Northerners objected to the increasing audacity of the South in promoting and defending the institution of human chattel slavery.
Buchanan followed that up with his bullheaded and bellicose handling of the tumultuous events in Kansas in 1857, where he supported the pro-slavery minority government in Lecompton over the territory’s large anti-slavery majority and then cajoled and improperly influenced the actions of Congress in voting for approval of the Lecompton-led Kansas constitution.
His administration was then investigated by the Republican controlled House for corruption in regard to the Lecompton constitution actions as well as for abuses of patronage, bribing voters, and the granting of lucrative federal contracts to supporters.
But all of that pales in comparison to his actions as a lame duck president following the election of Lincoln. As South Carolina broke away from the Union, his reliance and strategizing with pro-Southern members of his cabinet bordered on treason, and his mishandling of the assault on Fort Sumter only served to encourage both South Carolina as well as the resulting wave of seceding states that followed. Unfortunately, Baker’s handling of this material was confusing and hard to follow, but knowing I will be encountering it again in McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, I wasn’t too concerned about grasping the details in this account.
All of this would have been enough of an indictment on Buchanan’s presidency, but Baker seems to revel in attacking Buchanan’s character and even physical attributes throughout. To wit:
With his tilted head, protruding stomach, proportionately diminutive lower body, and heavily lidded eyes, one sometimes shut, he resembled an erect, two-footed tyrannosaur.
Baker also spends time questioning Buchanan’s sexuality and possible liaisons with other male contemporaries. To her credit, I think these subjects are fair game and were handled with relative grace.
Despite the subject, I felt Baker’s biography of America’s 15th president was a strong addition to the American Presidents Series and I look forward to learning more about Buchanan in the my upcoming readings on the Civil War.
On to Lincoln!