James Buchanan the 15th POTUS- the Worst President in the history of the United States. There is stiff competition for this title, many presidents who have to be considered failures but James Buchanan and his lack of action in the years before that start of the American Civil War makes him I believe the worst.

On paper James Buchanan appeared to have one of the best resumes of anyone who ever became president. It seemed like he should have been prepared. From 1821-31 he was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Pennsylvania. 1832-33 he was the Minister to Russia under President Jackson. Buchanan then was a United States Senator from Pennsylvania from 1834-45. Buchanan served as Secretary of State under President James K. Polk from 1945-49. Secretary of State was considered a stepping stone to the presidency  back then. Six of the first fifteen presidents had once held that office. Buchanan is the final Secretary of State who would make that claim. Rounding out his resume he served as U.S. Minister to England under Franklin Pierce.

Buchanan’s serving as Minister to England during Pierce’s presidency proved to be a key in his getting the Democratic Nomination for POTUS in 1856. The issue of slavery had reached a fever pitch in America. It was now not only hotly debated but had turned to violence. Buchanan benefited from being out of the country and not involved in the mess.

Buchanan tried to appear neutral on the issue so he would appeal to both the north and the south. His opponent in the election the first nominee for the new Republican Party- John Fremont called for the outright ending of slavery and this position would give Buchanan the south in the election and the presidency. The final electoral vote was Buchanan 174, Fremont 114 and former president Milliard Fillmore 8.

James Buchanan has been described as being a gentleman of the old school, very courteous, dignified and honest in his dealings with people.He was not a good public speaker. James K. Polk years before had described him though as “an able man, but in small matters without judgment and sometimes acts like an old maid.” But Polk did name him his Secretary of State. Polk’s friend Andrew Jackson didn’t think well of Buchanan and protested to Polk about this appointment. Polk responded that “You appointed him as Minister to Russia in your first term” to which Old Hickory responded “It was as far as I could send him out of my sight, and where he could do the least harm. I would have sent him to the North Pole if we had kept a minister there.”

Two days after Buchanan was inaugurated the U.S. Supreme Court announced their infamous Dred Scott decision in which was stated that the federal government had no power over the slavery issue in the territories and that African-Americans were denied the rights of U.S. citizens.

Buchanan hoped that the Dred Scott decision would end the issue but it only made things worse between the north and south. Then Buchanan announced his support of the Lecompton Constitution which let Kansas become a slave state. Also in the first year of the Buchanan presidency the Panic of 1857 hit- caused by an over-expansion of the U.S. economy and the declining international economy.

The slavery issue was only getting worse by the day and Buchanan’s stance was basically to close his eyes and hope it would go away. A man who had entered the presidency with hopes of being a great president like George Washington was clearly way over his head. The government was at a stalemate and southern states were starting to talk of succession.

Buchanan announced that the southern states had no legal right to succeed but that the federal government couldn’t make them stay. Seventeen days later South Carolina became the first state to succeed. Abraham Lincoln had won the 1860 election before all this but back then the new POTUS didn’t take over until March. During the months between Lincoln’s winning the presidency and his taking office-4 months Buchanan was still president in name but he wasn’t doing anything which can be seen as his doing his best to help the southern cause. It was giving them time to prepare for war and as more states announced they were leaving the Union- Buchanan did what he did best- nothing.

In a poll of historians in 2006 President James Buchanan’s failure to deal with succession was voted as the worst presidential mistake ever made. I can’t disagree with that. The United States which was blessed with great leadership during its early years now seemed cursed with years of no leadership. In a dozen years- Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan supplied little leadership or wisdom- they weren’t up to the job and as Buchanan left office the American Civil War was about to start. There are a number of candidates for the title of Worst President Ever- but I feel pretty confident in choosing James Buchanan as the worst.

Some interesting facts about James Buchanan

  • Buchanan is the only president ever from Pennsylvania.
  • Buchanan is the only bachelor president. When he was the president no First Lady but his orphaned niece Harriet Lane would serve as the White House hostess.
  • The question has been raised over the years -was James Buchanan gay? As a young man he was engaged to a woman named Anne Coleman. There were rumors that Buchanan was marrying her for her money. She broke off the engagement. Years later Buchanan lived for ten years  with William Rufus King who would later become Vice President under Franklin Pierce in a Washington boardinghouse. There were rumors about them of course. Andrew Jackson called them “Miss Nancy” and “Aunt Fancy” and Buchanan’s pro-southern views seem to have been influenced by King whose views romanticized the south.  Overall the opinion of historians seem split on the issue.
  • The Vice President under Buchanan was Kentuckian John Breckinridge- who would be one of the candidates for president in 1860. He would later become a general for the Confederacy in the American Civil War. Buchanan was always thought to have southern sympathies. His cabinet was divided between northerners and southerners -his thinking was this will help calm the country down.
  • James Buchanan would be the last president who was born during the 18th century.
  • After leaving office Buchanan supported the United States in the Civil War and of course spent the rest of his life defending his actions or lack of action in bringing on the war.
  • Buchanan fought as a private in the War of 1812.
  • James Buchanan died in 1868 at the age of 77.