Worst president? Historians have a candidate

James Buchanan's presidential portrait.
James Buchanan's presidential portrait.
Politicians and pundits alike achieved bipartisan unity last week when they denounced President Donald Trump, who stood beside Russian President Vladimir Putin and questioned the conclusion of U.S. intelligence officials that Russia meddled in the 2016 election.

     Trump walked back the comments a day later, saying he misspoke. But the president's press conference was carried by major broadcast networks, cable networks, the internet, radio, newspapers, and well, the damage was done. Trump’s performance was summed up with the words “shameful” and "imbecilic" and even “treasonous.”   
      But is Trump the worst president ever? One other president, James Buchanan, (1791-1868), may have given Trump a run for his money. Here is the story, along with links for further study:

The president: Buchanan, born in Cove Gap, Pennsylvania, was from a well-to-do family and educated at Dickinson College. The lifelong bachelor has been described by historians as learned in law. He had an impressive political record. He was elected five times to the House of Representatives, served as minister to Russia, secretary of state under President James Polk and also served as senator. He was elected the 15th president, in office 1857-61.
      It was rough sledding from the start, as the country was plunged into a financial panic.
     “The banks had invested in businesses that were failing, and this was causing the American people to panic,” recounts the Library of Congress website. To make matters worse, the Central America, a vessel carrying passengers and a shipment of gold from California, sank in a hurricane on Aug. 24, 1857.
     This panic led to a three-year long economic depression, and “devastated more fortunes, large and small, on a percentage basis, than the onslaught of the Great Depression of 1929, in a faster, if less prolonged, decline,” writes Robert Strauss in the book Worst. President. Ever. The POTUS Rating Game, and the Legacy of the Least of the Lesser Presidents (Lyons Press; 2016). “Buchanan decided to do nothing to have the government mitigate the crisis, as was his wont to pursue a hands-off attitude in most everything that concerned the federal government. That move further split the merchant classes of the North from their opposite numbers in the agricultural South, who used banks less and, thus, were not as affected in the Panic.”

Slavery: Buchanan viewed slavery as wrong but felt the federal government could not interfere.  In a memoir written after he left office, he opened with this explanation: “That the Constitution does not confer upon Congress power to interfere with slavery in the States, has been admitted by all parties and confirmed by all judicial decisions ever since the origin of the federal government. This doctrine was emphatically recognized by the House of Representatives in the days of Washington, during the first session of the first Congress, and has never since been seriously called in question.”
     But it's also true that Buchanan hoped the Supreme Court decision on the slave, Dred Scott, would settle the matter. An enslaved African-American man, Scott had sued for freedom. In the book, James Buchanan: The American Presidents Series: The 15th President, (Times Books; 2004), Jean H. Baker writes that before his inauguration:
     "Buchanan and his friend, Justice John Catron of Tennessee, exchanged letters. Buchanan had originally asked about the status of the (Dred Scott) case, so that he could refer to it in his inaugural address. Catron responded that the justices were split and that the new president should encourage his Pennsylvania friend Justice Robert Grier not to accept any limited judicial response but to seek a definitive solution. Only abolitionists like Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison and John Brown, but certainly not mainstream Republicans, challenged slavery in the original states and in the nine slave states that had entered the United States after ratification of the Constitution. So the issue of slavery in the territories could be settled, the United States could move on to other matters. In Buchanan's view these would certainly involve the expansion of the United States southward to Mexico and Cuba, both ripe for slaveholding. 
     "Following Catron’s advice, a few weeks before his inauguration the president-elect wrote to Justice Grier, urging a comprehensive judgment that moved beyond the particulars of Dred Scott’s individual status into that of all black Americans—slave and free, North and South. If a decision was reached, he wanted to use it as a turning point for a triumphant program of national harmony."
     After Buchanan's prodding, the justices "held slaves to be forever property and without any rights that white men were bound to protect."

Kansas Territory: Buchanan took office at a time when many in the North thought slavery should be abolished, while Southerners clung to the practice. The Kansas Territory was ground zero, “a bloody battleground over slavery, as abolitionists worked to bring the region into the Union as a free state, while southerners promoted admission as a slave state,” according to William A. DeGregorio and Sandra Lee Stuart in The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents (Barricade Books; 2013).  Although he was opposed to slavery, Buchanan “felt constitutionally bound to uphold it and favored the admission of Kansas as a slave state,” DeGregorio adds.
      Buchanan appointed Robert J. Walker of Mississippi as the territory’s governor. Under Walker’s leadership, a constitutional convention was held. The result was a proposed state constitution calling for Kansas to be admitted as a slave state.
      Buchanan favored it, but Stephen A. Douglas, Democratic senator of Illinois, successfully led the opposition, arguing that no one had a chance to vote on the question of slavery.  “Douglas claimed not to care whether slavery ‘was voted up or down, only that the decision be left to local majorities,’” recounts the Kansas City Public Library website, Civil War on the Western Border.
        In 1858, a referendum was held, and voters rejected the pro-slavery constitution.  Congress ordered a second referendum, but voters again rejected slavery. In 1861, Kansas was admitted as a free state.

Crisis: In November 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected president and Southern states began to secede from the union. “President Buchanan, dismayed and hesitant, denied the legal right of states to secede but held that the federal government legally could not prevent them,” explains the White House.gov website. “He hoped for compromise, but secessionist leaders did not want compromise.”
      On Jan. 9, 1861, Buchanan sent the Star of the West, an unarmed merchant ship with supplies and 200 additional troops, to reinforce the garrison at Fort Sumter at Charleston, South Carolina.
     It didn’t go well. Cadets of The Citadel were manning an artillery battery on Morris Island and “fired the first shots of the Civil War, repulsing the federal steamship,” recounts the school’s website.
      The ship turned around. Buchanan “reverted to a policy of inactivity that continued until he left office,” the White House.gov website explains.

The Impact: The country was literally being pulled apart by the issue of slavery. Buchanan’s inability to take a stand effectively inflamed the situation. “Indeed, Buchanan's passivity is considered by most historians to have been a prime contributing factor in the coming of the Civil War,” writes William Cooper, professor of history at Louisiana State University on the website of the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.

A final note:  Buchanan routinely lands at or near the bottom when historians are asked to rank presidents.  But in fairness, there is also this assessment by DeGregorio:
     “He [Buchanan] freely loaned money to friends in need and gave funds to the poor. He bought slaves in Washington and freed them in Pennsylvania without any guarantee of reimbursement. He was scrupulous to avoid even the appearance of conflict of interest. He declined all offers of free transportation passes and, as president, turned gifts over to the patent office. Buchanan carried himself with an air of dignity and was at all times graceful and courteous.”  



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