James Buchanan – Worst President Ever?

Buchanan Memorial

Covered in green pollen and tucked in a corner of Meridian Hill Park, it’s a monument that attracts little attention. Dog walkers and runners pass by the bronze sculpture without a second glance. A seated figure, looking down, on a marble plinth.

It’s James Buchanan, the worst President ever, according to a new biography by Robert Strauss.

If you remember Buchanan at all, it’s for doing nothing as Southern states seceded from the union after Lincoln’s election. But you don’t become the worst President though sins of omission; you become the worst by making a series of terrible decisions. In four short years, Buchanan:

  • Lobbied for the Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court, believing that it would settle the issue of slavery. Instead, it spread the bacillus of this poison to the North, whose citizens now found themselves legally obligated to help slavers.
  • Failed to intervene during the Panic of 1857, an economic crash caused by Dred Scott, for it unsettled the issue of whether future states would be slave or free. Emigration to the west dropped, railroads failed and millions went broke.
  • Made a martyr out of John Brown by handing him over to Virginia to hang for his role in the Harpers Ferry raid.
  • Allowed Southern states to seize federal forts and armories after the election of Lincoln, arguing that while states had no right to secede from the Union he had no right to use force against them.

After the Civil War, Buchanan was condemned as a “doughface”, a Northerner with Southern sympathies. His photo hung in stores with “TRAITOR” written under it. In Worst. President. Ever., there’s a story, probably apocryphal, of Buchanan fretting in his Pennsylvania estate as Lee’s armies approached, finally realizing his misdeeds.

Buchanan has his defenders, however. John Updike examined the life of his fellow Pennsylvanian in Memories of the Ford Administration, a novel mixing fact and fiction, arguing that Buchanan and the malaise-filled 1970s were both misunderstood.

The life of Buchanan becomes relevant only when America faces a leadership crisis. Then, our thoughts turn back to history, to the worst possible outcome. By this point in his term, Buchanan had ushered in the Dred Scott decision, a very lawyerly interpretation of the Constitution that united anti-slavery forces. A deal was no longer possible. As Lincoln said in 1858:

A house divided against itself cannot stand.

The Buchanan Memorial remains, forgotten, overgrown, a convenient sleeping spot for the homeless. Worst President Ever, an ignominious title for James Buchanan and one that may soon be taken from him.

The War That Ended Peace

the war that ended peaceIt was the war they said couldn’t happen. Europe had enjoyed a century of peace. Commerce between the nations was exploding thanks to new inventions and ways of doing business. Knit together by trade, communications and royal marriages, a war in Europe was unthinkable.

Moreover, the leaders of the European powers knew that a general war would lead to the end of their empires. Russia had barely survived its defeat by the Japanese in 1905. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was a seething cauldron of nationalities desiring freedom. Turkey was the sick man of Europe, with France and England eying its territory. The German Kaiser feared a revolt against his rule as much as he did the coming war, while the British felt necessary to fight to maintain their global empire.

In the years leading up to 1914, the Europeans had muddled through crisis after crisis, deftly avoiding a general conflagration. Yet, following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the continent slowly slid into the war that would consume them all.

This vital period is the subject of Margaret Macmillan’s The War That Ended Peace. She deftly examines the motivations of the Great Powers, as well as the men that led them. War was not inevitable, but the result of mistakes and miscalculations. Europe could have remained at peace, for there was a burgeoning anti-war movement in France and other countries, as well as the first stirrings of international labor. With her profiles of the people and nations of the period, she is careful not to assign blame, writing sympathetically from the perspective of the combatants, whose aims and beliefs were not that different from our own. This was a war in which everyone could claim to be acting in self-defense. Austria-Hungary went to war to punish the Serbs, Russia mobilized to protect Serbia, and Germany felt compelled to quickly defeat France before it would be overwhelmed by the Tsar’s troops.

One hundred years ago, the center of world civilization consumed itself in an unnecessary war. The War That Ended Peace should be required reading for today’s leaders, who glibly assure us that everything will remain as it’s always been. History has shown us the folly of this thinking.