James Buchanan is back, as a reminder that when it comes to presidential performance, there’s a spectrum from best to worst.
Hand it to New York Times columnist Gail Collins for keeping Old Buck in the news. Collins checks in periodically with folks at Lancasterhistory.org to solicit the latest word about a president often labeled “the worst president ever.” (The president she compares Buchanan with has no trouble getting attention these days.)
So thanks, Gail Collins, for bringing Pennsylvania’s contribution to the presidency back into the conversation.
With Buchanan’s birthday (April 23) approaching, it may be worth considering the nation’s only Pennsylvania president from different angles, beyond comparing him with other controversial chief executives.
As a Buchanan birthday sampler, here are five perspectives that you may have previously missed.
Not the Hamlet type
Buchanan is usually portrayed as a weak and indecisive president. If only he had been like Andrew Jackson in 1861! In truth, Buchanan was more given to impulse than vacillation.
Consider his quick — and stubborn — insistence that Kansas be admitted to the Union as a slave-state, even though it was obvious to any detached observer that pro-slavery sentiment in Kansas represented no more than a thin slice of the adult population there.
Less a Hamlet than an impulsive executive, Buchanan was given to what one scholar has called “errant decisiveness.” This was most evident in his response to the crisis in Utah in 1857 where he came within a hair’s breath of waging war on Brigham Young and his Mormon followers. Fortunately, faulty communications made it possible for sober second thoughts on both sides.
Hater will hate
Widely known for his collegiality, notably over a cigar and a glass of good Madeira wine, Buchanan was also a great hater.
In politics, his vitriol varied: Abolitionists, intraparty rivals like Stephen Douglas, and the so-called “black Republicans” — who wanted to throw constitutional order out the window in their attempts to block slavery expansion and thereby squeeze it to death — were particular villains in Buchanan’s book. Historians have noted that ideals can drive people to action, but so too can pettiness, stubbornness, jealousy and fear.
A Union man
For all his dislike of anti-slavery politicians, up to and including his successor Abraham Lincoln in 1861, Buchanan was a Union man, through and through.
When the South Carolina “fire-eaters” — pro-secession radicals — attacked Fort Sumter, and Abraham Lincoln called out the troops, Buchanan hesitated not a moment and endorsed Lincoln’s actions, saying he would have done the same thing. Buchanan consistently supported Lincoln’s determination to preserve the Union, including waging a hard war against the slavocracy.
To be sure, Buchanan never embraced Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation or his growing commitment to equality for African-Americans. Buchanan maintained a naive belief as late as 1864 that the war could end and the Union could be reunited with slavery somehow still intact — in other words, a return to 1860, despite hundreds of thousands of casualties incurred by 1864.
As obtuse on the subject of slavery and opponent of Republicans in domestic politics though he was, Buchanan never had a cross word to say about Abraham Lincoln personally, and was genuinely distressed when Lincoln was assassinated.
His personal life
Buchanan’s sexuality is unknowable and really does not matter. Historian Thomas Balcerski has examined with resourcefulness and insight Buchanan’s friendship with his supposed “Siamese Twin,” U.S. Sen. William R. King of Alabama. In a forthcoming book on Buchanan and King, Balcerski found no persuasive evidence to support the assertion that Buchanan and King were homosexual partners. He argues that the evidence for King is more suggestive on the subject of homosexuality than for Buchanan.
You cannot prove a negative, of course, on an issue like sexual identity. But you can stop taking shards of evidence, including occasional jibes by members of the Washington community during Buchanan’s day about “Aunt Nancy,” to turn Buchanan into our first gay president.
The good he did
Buchanan did some good things as president. It is not a long list. But Buchanan employed the military to keep the international slave trade in check. He opposed filibustering in Latin America. He put staunch Unionists in his reshuffled cabinet in early 1861, to make clear (after early fumbles) that secession was unacceptable. Most important, he made no imprudent moves against the new Confederacy that would enable it to claim to be the injured party and give it higher moral ground for resistance to federal authority.
Much as Abraham Lincoln would do in his first month as president, Buchanan in his last months in the White House insured that the North could not be seen as the aggressor. The firing on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor five weeks after Lincoln’s inauguration provoked war. It was, in the end, not James Buchanan’s war.
None of this is meant to suggest that Buchanan has been given a bum rap by historians who place him in the cellar among American presidents. But there is bad — and worse.
So, on his 127th birthday, we salute our 15th president — whether he was the worst ever or not.
Michael J. Birkner is professor of history at Gettysburg College and a former member of the board of Lancasterhistory.org. He is editor of two books on James Buchanan’s presidency.