Historians almost uniformly rank James Buchanan as the worst President of the United States, behind Franklin Pierce, who had similar weaknesses as chief executive, behind Richard Nixon, who resigned in disgrace, behind even short-timers James Garfield and William Henry Harrison, neither of whom lived long enough to have an impact. What was Buchanan’s crime?
He was too timid to do anything about seceding South Carolina.
History is not kind to Buchanan on other fronts, either. Our fifteenth president has long been rumored to be the first gay president. While there is no direct evidence of this, let’s just say that Buchanan did a horrible job convincing people otherwise.
But let’s back up first. Not since James K. Polk has anyone ever come into office more qualified than Buchanan. A well-regarded lawyer in his hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, he soon distinguished himself in the state legislature. During this time, he became engaged to Anne Caroline Coleman, the daughter of a wealthy iron manufacturer. However, the engagement abruptly ended and Coleman died of “hysterical convulsions” two weeks later.
Buchanan would cite Coleman’s death as the reason he remained a life-long bachelor. The rumors, though, of Buchanan’s homosexuality surfaced almost as soon as rumors that Coleman committed suicide.
Today, this would be controversial. It might end a political career or even make it, depending on how the person at the center of the controversy handled it, but we’re talking about the 19th, not the 21st, century. In pre-Civil War America, indeed anywhere in the world at the time, just the whisper of anything other than being a proper white Anglo-Saxon Protestant gentleman could destroy a man socially and politically. Today, at worst, it’s fodder for The Daily Show if someone overdoes the concept of Deny Deny Deny.
Depressed, Buchanan, who had left politics to focus on his law practice, accepted a nomination to Congress. There, he made his name as a trial lawyer in the impeachment of a federal judge. He also became a vocal supporter of General Andrew Jackson. Jackson, however, never respected Buchanan, believing he had sided with Henry Clay in the “corrupt bargain” that cost Jackson the presidency in 1824 and elected John Quincy Adams. Jackson fueled rumors of Buchanan’s preferences by referring to him as “Miss Nancy” to DC roommate William R. King’s “Aunt Fancy.” They were also referred to as “Mr. and Mrs. Buchanan.”
Nonetheless, Buchanan eventually was chosen for the Senate and eventually became Minister to Russia. His presidential ambitions came within reach when he was named James K. Polk’s Secretary of State. During his predecessor’s administration, Buchanan became Minister to Britain where he shored up relations between the US and UK.
When you look at modern presidents, the most successful of the twentieth century – the Roosevelts, Wilson, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Reagan, Bush, Sr., and Clinton all had rather lengthy careers comparable to Buchanan’s. Even Nixon, who managed to accomplish much despite his paranoid antics, had a background rivaling Buchanan’s. And no one can really accuse Buchanan of the massive corruption that doomed Harding and Nixon. So why did this most promising of presidential candidates bomb so miserably?
Well, as we have learned in recent years, the man often does not live up to the hype. Even so, it is doubtful George W. Bush or Barack Obama, despite their present-day critics protests to the contrary, will rank nearly as low as Buchanan. Why?
In a word, Buchanan was wishy-washy. He rejected the new Republican Party as abolitionist fanatics. He alienated his own Democratic Party by tossing out Franklin Pierce appointees and crawling into the lap of Southerners. Over his single four-year term, Buchanan, a dough-face, openly sympathized with slave-holders. By the end of his term, his entire cabinet was composed of Southerners.
Finally, in 1860, as South Carolina seceded from the Union, Buchanan took the bizarre stance that secession was illegal but that the federal government could do nothing about it. He cited vague precedent to support his cause, but Presidents Andrew Jackson and Zachary Taylor, both Southern slave holders, threatened to march on South Carolina if they seceded. Jackson even promised to hang John Calhoun, Southern firebrand and Jackson’s former vice president, if the state attempted to leave the Union. Buchanan, ever the Southern apologist, tried to steer a middle course that doomed the Union and gave rise to the Confederacy.
In the end, even Buchanan had had enough of his own presidency. On Inauguration Day in 1861, Buchanan told Lincoln that if he was as happy to become president as Buchanan was to be leaving, then Lincoln was a very happy man indeed.
While Buchanan remained a Southern sympathizer for the rest of his days, he nonetheless focused his post-presidential career on his law practice and on rehabilitating his damaged reputation. He somewhat succeeded. Between his death in 1869 and the dawn of the civil rights movement, Buchanan was seen as a tragic figure, desperately trying to save the Union from disintegration. Afterward, he became the American equivalent of Nero – fiddling while Dixie burned. For that, he is universally panned as America’s worst president.