James Buchanan: Worst US president?

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News, Washington

Image source, Other

James Buchanan is often saddled with the title of "the worst US president", blamed for not averting the Civil War - but efforts are being made to reassess his legacy. How bad was he really?

"My dear sir, if you are as happy in entering the White House as I shall feel on returning to [my home ] Wheatland, you are a happy man indeed."

Buchanan made this remark to his successor, Abraham Lincoln in 1861, as he led him to the podium where he would be inaugurated as US president. Buchanan was leaving Washington with his reputation in tatters and was looking forward to a peaceful retirement at his Pennsylvania home. Yet it was anything but.

Such was the animosity directed towards him in public, he could no longer drink in his favourite local taverns and spent much of his post-presidency holed up at home. Outside, the nation tore itself apart in a bloody conflict that became known as "Buchanan's War".

The intervening years have not been any kinder. Buchanan consistently ranks bottom in lists of "best presidents".

In January, Nate Silver, the star statistician whose election predictions have gained mythical status, revealed a poll of polls that placed Buchanan 43rd out of 43 presidents.

For his critics, who say he caused both his country and the Democratic Party to fall apart, that's where he belongs.

But a new book, James Buchanan and the Coming of the Civil War, hopes to reignite the debate.

It's not an attempt to contradict the standard portrayal of Buchanan as one of the least effective presidents, says co-author Michael Birkner. But it does try to get people to argue about him a bit more, and reassess what he did well and did badly.

"You have to bear in mind that popular history in the late 19th and early 20th Century was written by conservative nationalists like James Ford Rhodes, James Schouler, and Theodore Roosevelt.

"Buchanan failed as president in their view because he did not head off secession by taking strong measures against the southern fire-eaters who backed it."

The other point of view is that he exercised prudence in not provoking war, because like Lincoln he understood it would be easier to rouse the North to fight if the South started it.

Buchanan was born in Cove Gap, Pennsylvania, in 1791, but aged 18 settled in Lancaster, where the city still takes great pride in his achievements.

Some of his possessions, including his presidential desk, were recently returned to Wheatland, just outside Lancaster, where Buchanan lived before and after his single-term presidency.

Image source, Getty Images

"It is time to reassess him, absolutely," says Patrick Clarke, director of Wheatland. "We don't only learn from the victorious and successful."

Buchanan made his fair share of mistakes but Congress and the judiciary did too, says Clarke, who nominates Warren G Harding as the worst US president, because of the corruption scandals that plagued his term of office.

One of the main criticisms of Buchanan concerns his attitude to slavery. He supported a Supreme Court decision that denied African-Americans were citizens, and he backed the admittance of Kansas to the Union with a pro-slavery constitution, to the disgust of many Democratic colleagues.

Civil War was inevitable, says Birkner, professor of history at Gettysburg College. But the blunders of politicians like Buchanan - and Kansas was his biggest - made it happen sooner.

Lincoln, whose election triggered the break-up of the Union, would not have been elected if Buchanan had not split his own party, he adds. But Andrew Johnson, who followed Lincoln, was a worse president than Buchanan, Birkner says, because he squandered the opportunity to take the country forward after the war.

The majority view, that Lincoln was the best and Buchanan was the worst, results from shortcomings in the way US historians rate presidents, says Ivan Eland, author of Recarving Rushmore.

Eland thinks presidential ratings are too easily swayed by charisma, activism and service during a crisis. In his book, he ranks the White House occupants according to how much they fulfilled the aims of the Founding Fathers to bring peace, prosperity and liberty to the country.

At the top he puts the relatively unknown John Tyler, for ending the longest Indian war in US history and avoiding one with Britain over Canada.

But Woodrow Wilson is at the bottom for taking the US into World War I, an action that Eland thinks was avoidable.

"I don't think [Buchanan] was a great president but he's probably better than people give him credit for. He was trying to avoid the war and it ended up being a catastrophe," says Eland.

"Buchanan was right in that he thought it was illegal for the South to secede but illegal to do anything militarily unless the South started the fight."

The perception of what makes a good and bad president can be very different outside the US.

In 2011, Franklin D Roosevelt topped the first ever UK academic poll rating the performance of US presidents.

"I think we rated FDR higher because he dealt with issues that had huge global significance - the Great Depression and World War II," says Iwan Morgan, professor of US Studies at the University of London, one of the 47 British contributors to the poll.

"For Americans, however, he is a more divisive figure as the architect of big government."

The British have an excessively high estimate of Obama because we want him to succeed, says Morgan, while Bush Jr is generally disliked because of the wars.

"But we don't appreciate that he deployed presidential influence very effectively to get his policies enacted.

"Here's the problem with presidential rating - are you rating leadership or what they did?"