Re-edited October 3, 2009
A long-time friend, Joannie Braden, sent me an email message in January 2008 that she had read somewhere that James Buchanan was the worst president in United States history. I, too, have often seen and heard the same claim as though it were an unquestioned fact. Joannie wondered if that meant that George W. Bush was now tied with Buchanan. (Based in Denver, she and her husband, Rick Ridder, are consultants for political candidates as well as human rights and environmental organizations.) What follows, with some modifications, is how I answered her.
My “David Offutt’s Grading of the U. S. Presidents” of September 2005 is available under the presidents category on this site, as are all the essays mentioned in the following:
Possibly the best presidential poll dates back to Arthur Schlesinger’s 1962 Poll of 75 various “experts.” I included it with my own rankings of 1973 and 2005. The polls of “experts” that I have seen in the last 25 years or so have never made sense. Buchanan is usually listed at the bottom; and Ronald Reagan is usually ranked pretty high, which to me is totally absurd. One explanation may be that, generally speaking, beginning in the mid-1970’s after the resignation of Nixon, historians and journalists appeared to become more conservative. Both seemed hostile to the recent southern Democratic presidents (Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton) but deified the personable Mr. Reagan in spite of his deplorable record.
In 1973 I gave Buchanan a rating of “Bad” (“F”) with four presidents below him, but I elevated him in 2005 to the bottom of my “D” category. He was not a good president by any stretch of the imagination, but he did not personally set out to subvert the Constitution as did the three Nixonians: Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush. Nixon’s Watergate activities (“The Rise of the Nixonians: The Watergate Scandals”) and Reagan’s Iran-Contra affairs (“The Rise of the Nixonians: The Iran-Contra Scandals”) were the most serious abuses of power in our history prior to Mr. Bush’s renegade tenure. Bush’s first six years – using lies to start a war, illegally wire-tapping and much more – would have gotten any Democrat impeached, convicted, and removed from office (“The Divine Right of King George W,” “The Extremist Regime of Bush-Cheney,” and “Bush’s Legacy…”). Those three presidents have been our most dangerous presidents and are easily our worst thus far. They occupy my 2005 “F minus” category.
I explained in “Plutocracy: The Trickle-Down Economics of Hoover, Reagan, and Bush” why I lowered Hoover to the “F” ranking that he deserves. Hoover may have been president for only four years but he ran U. S. economic policies as Secretary of Commerce for the eight years immediately before that, so he owns the Great Depression. His policies of making the rich richer with no regulations were restored by Reagan and W. Bush with the same predictably disastrous results. On June 3, 2008, I reminded readers about “The Great Depression and the Periodic Return of the Republican Policies of Herbert Hoover.”
Buchanan was elected in 1856 as a compromise candidate when the Democratic Party was the only national party in the country. He was opposed to slavery but insisted that the Constitution protected slavery where it existed. He was a foreign policy specialist and, as President, made important trade treaties with China and Japan. He also made treaties with Mexico and Nicaragua allowing us to send troops into their countries whenever we thought there was a need. He almost bought Cuba. If anything, he was an expansionist and wanna-be American empire builder.
However, Buchanan deserves his reputation as one of our sorriest presidents because of his policies, or lack thereof, toward “Bleeding Kansas.” There was violence in Kansas between slave-staters and free-staters throughout his presidency.
I suspect that Buchanan is usually listed as our worst by the more recent conservative historians and journalists to detract attention from the corruption of the Grant, Harding, Nixon, and Reagan administrations. Buchanan undoubtedly had the most corrupt administration in our history prior to Grant. Nevertheless, it paled in comparison to any of those four Republicans whose presidencies were defined by corruption (“Plutocracy: The Greed and Corruption of the Grant, Harding, Nixon, and Reagan Administrations”). There were crooks in Buchanan’s administration, but they didn’t characterize the whole administration and, rightly or wrongly, are rarely ever mentioned in American history textbooks. Writer Cormac O’Brien claims that Congress refused to purchase Cuba, as Buchanan wanted, because it was afraid that some of the Buchanan bunch would misuse the funds appropriated to buy the island. More likely, northern Democrats and the abolitionist Republicans were opposed to adding any new potential slave territories to the USA.
Buchanan is primarily denigrated because he didn’t assume dictatorial powers as soon as the South began to secede. It’s kind of funny. Buchanan didn’t have much of an army and every time he wanted to do something to meet the crisis, the Republican majority in the House would deny him what he wanted – then the Republicans would criticize him for not doing what they wouldn’t let him do. Even though he was a “lame duck” president – and we all know how influential W. Bush was after November 4 – he continued for four months, from Lincoln’s election until Lincoln took office, to try to compromise and prevent an outbreak of hostilities. He even attempted to reinforce Fort Sumter with troops, but they were turned back by the South. Lincoln later tried to send only provisions to the fort, and war broke out.
Once Lincoln took office, he adopted everything that Buchanan had done and continued Buchanan’s efforts at compromise until the South fired on Fort Sumter. Only then did Lincoln assume the dictatorial powers that Buchanan has been condemned for not using! Lincoln knew that his Republicans had prevented Buchanan from acting, so he was aware the Northern Democrats might try to do the same thing to him. Hence, he took advantage of the ten weeks that the Congress was in recess and never called it back for a special session.
The only reason South Carolina began the secession movement was a matter of honor. South Carolina had said it would secede if “that abolitionist Lincoln” were elected. It was not James Buchanan’s policies that led to the Civil War. I suggest that Buchanan is a “D” as I assigned him in my 2005 list, with seven much sorrier presidents below him. I still contend that George W. Bush is clearly our worst president thus far, and I say that with no reservations. Barack Obama will acquire his predecessor’s messes, the like of which many of us could never have imagined.
by David Offutt
A version of this essay was published December 5, 2008,
in the El Dorado News-Times as a letter to the editor.