The annual Presidential Rankings were released a few days ago (on Feb 22, President’s Day) and I was intrigued by the complexity of the project. This is the 3rd year C-Span has hosted this and it’s a pretty stable indicator – done by 90+ historians with the usual suspects in their usual places – movement up or down from year to year is usually slight.
( see C-span.org https://www.c-span.org/presidentsurvey2017/ ) – Obama came in at #12 this year and Eisenhower’s rating has inched up over the last three years.
Worst. President. Ever.: James Buchanan, the POTUS Rating Game, and the Legacy of the Least of the Lesser Presidents
by Robert Strauss
2016 / 304 pages
read by Tom Perkins 8h 51m
rating: 8 / presidential biography
Anyway, I saw the name of President #15, James Buchanan , at the bottom (#43) of the lists almost every time in every category. Only in 3 of the 10 categories analyzed did he move to #42 or #41.
So I asked myself why? What all did he do that was so bad? Look at William Harding or George W. Bush or Franklin Pierce for comparison. And because I felt like I wanted an answer I went to Amazon and checked out biographies of Buchanan. I found a few, nowhere near the number of many presidents and one was available in Audio format. It sounded kind of light and had got decent reviews – not a dry dissertation of dusty details. I didn’t necessarily want to become bogged down in Buchanan, so that’s what I got.
Strauss makes no bones about his own political leanings although I can’t find the specifics. It just comes across. And yet, I think he’s fair to Buchanan because he does have some very good things to say about him. The end effect on my was sympathetic because I think he really was a nice man who had ideas about what he could and could not do which didn’t turn out the way he wanted. He stood firmly behind Lincoln and the Union.
There is an apparently outstanding biography of Buchanan by a University of Pennsylvania historian, Philip S. Klein: https://bestpresidentialbios.com/2014/02/24/review-of-president-james-buchanan-a-biography-by-philip-klein/ – but he may be a bit too easy on Buchanan.
Strauss says that Buchanan’s whole personality of compromise, playing to both sides of a dispute, trying to just stay low and out of trouble, which when combined with his habitual mind changing, permeated all the categories. It affected everything he did. His strong points were family, friends, people in need and administration.
I did know something about Buchanan as President prior to reading Strauss’ book. He presided in the White House just prior to Lincoln and did absolutely nothing when maybe he could have at least tried in some way to prevent the war (which cost over 620,000 lives – more than all the wars from the French and Indian to Vietnam put together). But I wasn’t sure if that, on its own, supported the bottom score in all those categories. How could he know? He was hoping for resolution. So what else did he do – or fail to do? Buchanan sounded like a serious blunderer.
He was president at a time of changing alliances including the deaths of the Federalist and Whig political parties. Buchanan had plenty of experience in government by the time he got to the presidency but maybe that was part of the problem – he didn’t want to make enemies.
There are several interesting things about Buchanan’s life but the presence of Ann Coleman to whom he became engaged and then she died rather mysteriously is high on the list. There is quite a lot of speculation about this in the Strauss book and elsewhere because Buchanan never married – the only bachelor president. James Buchanan and Ann Coleman at Pennsylvania State University.
Another influence was William R King, Franklin Pierce’s Vice President, another bachelor. King was a slave-holder from a large plantation in Alabama. Many sources just skimp on any mention of Coleman and/or in relation to Buchanan. Buchanan’s diaries were burned at his death but King apparently kept some and there are sources which refer to King and Buchanan as a couple. (There have been gay rumors about several presidents.)
The book is not just about the Buchanan biography and presidency – it’s also about Washington DC and the social/political/economic climate of the times. There are some comparisons to and stories about other presidencies and there’s a brief discussion of presidential ratings in general.
There’s also a fair amount of authorial memoir in here – how he became interested in the subject at the age of 5 and continuing interest, difficulties and travel to study it over the years. He also describes his daughter’s interest in the subject. Buchanan was a strange favorite to study. These parts kind of ramble and digress.
He disliked both free trade and tariffs – he was totally wishy-washy and spineless. He couldn’t make a choice that would hurt someone. He tried to take the middle ground in all cases. And he would “re-think” things after a decision. Not good in a president during troubled times.
One good thing, especially visible in these days, is that Buchanan never said anything bad about anyone that researchers have found. He got angry and despised a few people but he didn’t say so. “If you can’t say something good about someone …”. Another good thing is that he took good care of his family, both wife and children as well as extended. He was “liked” by just about everyone throughout his life. He was a very hard worker ever since grade school, researching cases meticulously, writing speeches carefully, etc.