15 - James Buchanan

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15 - James Buchanan

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Editado: Maio 28, 2010, 2:50 pm

President James Buchanan by Philip S Klein
James Buchanan
James Buchanan and the American empire

Buchanan had the opportunity to buy Cuba for only $90,000,000, but Congress wouldn't let him because they thought he would steal the money and run away!
Buchanan was the only president to never be married.
He is said to have the neatest handwriting of all the presidents.
Buchanan was farsighted in one eye and nearsighted in the other. His left eye also sat higher in its socket than his right. He tipped his head to the left and closed one eye when talking to people.
He sent a note to newly elected Abe Lincoln saying, "My dear sir, If you are as happy on entering the White House as I on leaving, you are a happy man indeed."
James Buchanan was the first president to send a transatlantic telegram.

Fev 16, 2009, 11:05 am

I read James Buchanan by Jean Baker, another in the Presidential series edited by Arthur Schliesinger and it was an eye-opener. Buchanan was an very experienced politician and stateman, having served in state office, both houses of Congress, in two cabinets, and twice as ambassador (to Russia and to the Court of St. James). He attended Dickinson College (but bore it grudges), trained as an attorney and because very good at it--making enough money to support his extended family through several generations. He may have been homosexual, but there is no proof one way or the other, but his niece served as his official hostess, both in Washington and in Wheatland, Pennsyvania. The question is: why, with such a varied and strong background, did this man who craved the office of the President, do such a horrid job once elected. Baker makes some very sound arguments about Buchanan's love of Southern people (manners and style) which governed most of his later career. His cabinet, until the eve of war, was made up only of Southern men, mostly Democrats. He mistaked the importance of the split in feelings in Kansas and used what we now call executive privilege to try to force Congress to his view. He allowed corruption to continue with some of his cabinet--to the point where military strategies were leaked to Southern militias. The kindest thing to say is that he was inept in office; the more correct thing to say is that he came very close to betraying the country.

Fev 17, 2009, 12:09 pm

Thanks for the review of the James Buchanan book, Prop2gether. I picked this one up over the weekend from the library. I seem to be reading a lot of "worst presidents" books lately--Herbert Hoover was my previous presidential read.

I note that, in the new C-Span survey of presidential historians, Buchanan once again ranked dead last among all the presidents.

After I finish James Buchanan, maybe I should pick up Millard Fillmore, Warren Harding, Franklin Pierce next and get all the presidential "duds" out of the way.

Fev 19, 2009, 1:02 pm

LOL! I seem to be working my way through the "lesser" presidents as well. There's soooooooo much available on the top 10 or so, that it's more fun trying to find out about the others. Since Baker gives some material about other biographies of Buchanan, I may try one of those as well. Buchanan wrote his own memoirs, but it appears several Pennsylvanians have also written more positive biographies, and John Updike wrote a play, which I plan to read.

Fev 19, 2009, 1:07 pm

I always wonder how someone so capable, as Buchanan apparently was, performed so poorly as president. In many ways, the duds are more interesting than the successes.

Fev 23, 2009, 1:20 pm

Buchanan reacted to a worsening situation the same way the earlier Presidents did. Hands-off as much as possible. It was the prevailing philosophy of governing in the pre-1861 era and was the only style of governing that he knew.

The Civil War was 20-some years in the making. The hostilities kept building and building. My opinion is that a civil war had to happen to resolve the issues. Buchanan's failures were exactly what the nation needed. If Buchanan had taken steps to avoid a civil war, then how long would it have held off the inevitable and at what cost?

Fev 24, 2009, 11:19 am

Interesting thought, but not what most historians believe to be the case. I read a biography earlier of Zachary Taylor which strongly suggested that there were ways to avoid the war but still resolve the issues. Several general histories say the same. And Buchanan did not keep "hands off" when he felt a vested interest--Kansas is the prime example of how he interfered when he thought he could control the situation. Nonetheless, an interesting thought.

Fev 24, 2009, 5:22 pm

Of course there were ways to avoid the Civil War and resolve the issues. But, those ways were not adopted due to the accepted governing philosophies at the time. Today, we know the outcome of the solutions applied by those presidents. But, those presidents did not know the outcome of the solutions when they became policy. Back then, it was a crapshoot (one that required a lot of faith and prayer).

Buchanan could have done more and that is what I was implying to in the second paragraph of my previous post. His actions reflected the previous presidential actions. Put a band-aid on it and pass the buck, which is what Buchanan was hoping to do. His actions were not solutions. They were short-term fix-its.

I have read some dissertations where this theory is suggested. It is not a mainstream theory, but one that is getting some attention. And, the people writing them are the historians of tomorrow. It takes awhile for new ideas to gain acceptance from the academic world.

Fev 24, 2009, 5:49 pm

I hope that, as we discuss the various presidents, we can cite to other presidential biographies. Besides the basic American Presidents series books, where possible.

Prop2gether, I've put the Buchanan book aside, for now, to focus on more seasonal reading (for me). I suspect that my next presidential book will be something like Citizen-in-Chief (about their post-presidential careers) or something of that nature.

Editado: Fev 24, 2009, 6:01 pm


It is not for us to try to resolve why someone acted the way they did over a hundred years ago. We are only trying to find out how their life effected history with the actual actions or non-actions that they took. It is for each of us to decide for ourselves if we feel that there is further innvestigation needed for our own edification.

Early in our setup of this group we agreed as sjmccreary said best "we should resolve to avoid displaying a pro or con stand on the actions of specific presidents. Let's limit ourselves to learning about the issues each man faced and how he handled them, and gaining an understanding of how those actions affected the nation and the world - and stay away from labeling them right or wrong."

Fev 24, 2009, 6:35 pm

And just for the record, I'm picking up the play by Updike, a native Pennsylvanian, this week. It should be an interesting comparison and is in the list of recommended reading by Baker.

Editado: Fev 24, 2009, 9:24 pm

I think anytime we read about presidents, who, by nature of their office, are powerful people, we will have reactions to the actions they take when faced with a set of circumstances, whether they created or inherited those circumstances. I don't see a discussion of our personal reactions or understandings of those actions as unhealthy, altho by definition we are discussing politics. SO??? Presidents are politicians, and we can't really talk about them without some discussion of political topics.

I think the reason we joined a group like this is to discuss the various interpretations, understandings, and actions that we have read about. It's part of the fun of reading two or three different books about one person. If one author had all the answers, and the biblical infallible interpretation of facts, there'd be no point in a Presidential reading group.

I for one, enjoy seeing others' interpretations...I might never have considered how Buchanan reacted to his circumstances in the same way, particularly if I read a different book. So let's just agree to discuss, present, and even maybe disagree as long as we DON"T SHOUT, or call each other names. (calling the dogs and cats names isn't allowed either.) This is supposed to be fun!!.

Abr 23, 2009, 9:19 pm

Baker, Jean H.: James Buchanan

I picked up this book at the bookstore last week because I had just finished the section in McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom that dealt with the time during Buchanan’s presidency and I wanted to know more about the man. Although I did learn more about his life and his career before he became president I found this biography not to be as helpful as I had hoped it would.

No one is going to dispute that Buchanan was one of the worst—maybe even the worst—president we have had. However, Baker wrote her work as if she were afraid he might rise again and run for public office and she wanted to be very sure that no one would vote for him. Often her language bordered on vitriolic. Sometimes even in areas where he is acknowledged to have been somewhat successful she managed to convey the feeling that it was not because of his ability but either because he was well advised or someone else was incompetent and made him look good. Her descriptions of him would also change according to the point she was trying to make. Before he became president she described him as being indecisive, unable to make up his mind, and relying on others to guide him, especially if he did something right. Later she describes him as “…a strong president intent on having his own way, surrounded by advisers who agreed with him.” It seems if things went well it is because he followed good advice and when things went badly it’s because he wouldn’t take advice. Perhaps that is true. But he had a reputation as a competent office holder for many years before his debacle as president. He must have had some redeeming traits. If McCullough, in his biography of John Adams, errs on the side of being too fond of him, at least he has no hesitation in pointing out his flaws and his mistakes. Baker errs on the side of so detesting Buchanan that she can find nothing about him that she can praise. I would recommend if you want a more balanced view of Buchanan read what McPherson says in Battle Cry of Freedom.

Jul 28, 2009, 12:09 am

While it is not entirely focused on James Buchanan and his entire career (or even his entire time as President), I finished the book 1858: Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and the War They Failed to See by Bruce Chadwick. Not sure why he Grant's name gets in the title since I don't really recall a big write-up on him nor do I think Chadwick really explains why they failed to see this war. But he presents the year 1858 and some of the major events, including the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates. Like others he rails on Buchanan as a President and his ineffectiveness. As a Democrat he was petty, even going as far as trying to sabotage fellow Democrat Stephen Douglas against Lincoln (because a disagreement over the Kansas issue). Buchanan seemed to ignore all the problems that slavery was causing in the country, especially the quick rise of the Republican Party and more focused on ill-fated missions of getting more land/territory in South and Central America (Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela).

The book also has chapters on men like William Sherman, Robert E. Lee, John Brown, and William Seward leading up to 1858 and in 1858. The book definitely made me more interested in William Sherman's life.

Not sure if you want to count this book or not, since it is not entirely about Buchanan, but it definitely shines some more light on what is universally agreed as an ineffective presidency.

Jul 30, 2009, 9:00 am

The question is do you want to count this as your read for Buchanan? Each person needs to decide for themselves how much they want to know about each president and the times.
I have this book on my list for next year but will categorize it as background for the presidents and Civil War rather than any particular president.

Ago 2, 2009, 11:57 pm

I think I will keep as a background book and not the actual book. Actually the book about Polk I read talked a bit about Buchanan as well, so I actually want to read more about him-he sounds like a far more interesting character than I thought he would be.

Mar 20, 2010, 8:58 pm

President James Buchanan by Philip Shriver Klein

Buchanan usually doesn't rank very high on the list of US Presidents - in fact, he's usually near the bottom. Well, he wasn't the best leader we've ever had - after all, the Civil War essentially broke out on his watch - but in some ways he gets a bum rap.

JB spent 40 years in public service before he became President. He was at heart a disciplined, self-made man who was an expert in playing the patronage game to succeed at party politics in Pennsylvania. He served in Congress, as minister to Russia and to England, and as Secretary of State before his election to the presidency, yet it's hard to put a finger on any big accomplishments. He was a strong believer in family and took care of many of relative, yet never managed to have a family of his own. His administration was reasonably successful in foreign policy, but domestically, was unable to deal with the open warfare between abolitionists and pro-slavery forces in places like Kansas.

Part of the problem was that Buchanan wasn't a visionary leader when we needed one. But he also had to deal with a Republican Congress that in many ways hamstrung his attempts to deal with domestic issues. And his own party, the Democrats, were divided into a number of factions, all of which were competing with him to come out on top.

Klein's book is a pretty good autobiography of Buchanan, even if it's a tad bit dated. My only real complaint is that he spends quite a lot of time going through the political maneuvering by the various Pennsylvania Democratic factions, and it gets a bit tedious at times. The last third of the book, though, gets quite dramatic as he leads up to the outbreak of the Civil War.

Maio 6, 2010, 7:15 pm

I read the Philip Klein book. It is noted as a "Definitive Work" by the American Political Biography Press. Accordingly, I expect it covers the man fairly well.
I found him and the book interesting, even though my hackles raised a bit from time-to-time. The Democrats were splintered back then and jockeying for power. I think that's really what gave us a fairly good man but a man whose political courage always seemed to err on the side of expediency rather than righteous decisiveness.
There was little written here about the Dred Scott decision of the Supreme Court. That showed to me that Mr. Buchanan didn't really have an opinion on it other than he was happy to let someone else tell the country what their collective opinion should be. He didn't even seem to realize that there was going to be danger in any decision made for the people by anyone.
Oh well. the book is a good read even if a little stuffily written.

Maio 10, 2010, 3:24 pm

The book America in 1857 by Kenneth Stampp, while not a biography per se, covers the Buchanan presidency quite nicely and I would suggest it to all as an adjunct to their studies.

Editado: Maio 11, 2010, 4:22 pm

Well, I finally finished my Buchanan book so that I can move on to the Civil War and Lincoln.

The full review is Here.

Maio 24, 2010, 5:50 pm

James Buchanan and the American empire by Frederick Moore Binder - finished 5/21/2010

Ago 16, 2010, 6:16 pm

President James Buchanan
by Philip S. Klein

The life of James Buchanan, 15th President of the United States, is somewhat of a depressing tale. He was the last of the compromise generation, those politicians who strictly adhered to the constitutional limitations of the federal government and respected the "right" of the states to allow or eliminate slavery as their people saw fit. (Of course, I have yet to read biographies of Lincoln or subsequent presidents, so maybe, they too, had hoped to maintain that qntebellum status quo.) For years he had labored in politics, supporting his party, state and country, but once he finally achieved the honored office of President, the compromises gave way and the union fell apart. Buchanan did his best, but with so many people in each region demanding their own way, there wasn't much he could do. Depressing. Reminds me of my church. But I digress. The book was a rather enjoyable read, and as the crisis of Civil War began to loom, it became somewhat dramatic. As one might suspect, this 1962 biography is quite favorable towards Mr. Buchanan and makes the readers question the virtues of his opponents, including Abraham Lincoln. But then, none of the presidential biographies I've read up to this point have had much good to say about James Buchanan. The multiple viewpoints along the way makes for some interesting reading.

Set 10, 2010, 9:34 pm

Just finished James Buchanan by Jean H Baker. It was a good overview and a scathing portrayal of his Presidency. It essence, it displays Buchanan as a lonely bachelor who fell in love with his southern friends. She did not view Buchanan as a weak president, because she argues that he showed presidential strength in other areas of policy, such as his message to Congres which asked for troops on the border of Arizona in Mexican territory. I'm interested in reading the two other books I have on Buchanan, especially Klein's book, which seems to be more pro-Buchanan. Baker's book is a good overview for HS students, but I need to know more.

Set 23, 2010, 10:24 am

Completed The Presidency of James Buchanan by Elbert B. Smith. It's a much more balanced look at Buchanan than Baker's book, but it is more political history than biography. In fact a good portion of the book talks about America at the time and the events that roiled before the Civil War, and not about Buchanan. I found it to be a great read, but if you're looking to learn specifically about Buchanan, other books might be a better choice. I am about to start the Klein book that many here have read.

Out 6, 2010, 7:26 pm

Just read President James Buchanan: A Biography by Philip S. Klein, and really enjoyed it. It was much more extensive and a little more fair than the other two books I read. I continue to learn through reading these books that almost EVERY decision a President makes is for a rational reason. It's just a matter of whether it works out. I don't think Buchanan could have stopped the Civil War without violating the Constitution, and he took an oath to uphold it. Great insight into what kind of man he was, and how his political experiences shaped his presidency. I felt sorry for him when I read about him defending his administraton after he left office when he was basically accused of treason by the Republicans. I wouldn't call this book worshipful either. It's merely fair.

Out 7, 2010, 8:35 am

Ted -- how is it that Buchanan couldn't have stopped the Civil War without violating the Constitution? When South Carolina threatened to secede when Jackson was President, he threatened to hang every one of them; they believed him and they backed down. Buchanan failed to act after a rebellion was launched and he had every authorization under the Constitution --including the right to suspend habeas corpus -- once the rebellion began. In fact, he did nothing. There is nothing to feel sorry for with regard to Buchanan -- he has fully earned the historian opprobrium that generally places him as the worst US President in history (despite the fact that W recently gave him a run for the money!)

Dez 15, 2010, 3:08 pm

I just finished reading James Buchanan (The American Presidents by Jean Baker. Baker makes a good case for Buchanan ranking as one of the worst presidents. I am just happy to be moving on to Lincoln and the Civil War.

Dez 28, 2010, 5:26 pm


The difference between Jackson and Buchanan is that most of the Southern states actually seceded under Buchanan. They just threatened to under Jackson. Buchanan couldn't declare war on the South, and the Congress of the time was absolutely not interested in doing it for him. They were too busy trying to find a compromise solution. He tried to get Congress to give him the authority to call up the militia, and he refused to do so. Lincoln's path was made easier because he came into office before Congress was in session, and therefore gave himself the authority (of whose source is dubious) to act in an emergency, and when Congress did come into session, it was a Republicans group without southern members, which allowed him to get what he wanted early on mostly unopposed.

Dez 28, 2010, 7:13 pm

"The president is further empowered to . . . convene and adjourn either or both houses of Congress under extraordinary circumstances."

Buchanan's one lame action was an attemt to reinforce Sumpter at Anderson's request: "Buchanan ordered the secretary of war, John Floyd, to send more troops. Floyd, the former governor of Virginia who is, in turns, pro-union, pro-slavery and an appeaser of the secessionists, has ignored the order, for although he wishes to protect the troops, he feels sending reinforcements would provoke violence, which of course would be illegal, although secession is South Carolina’s right." So nothing was done. Great work Buchanan!

Had Jackson been President, there is no doubt that he would have taken vigorous action against South Carolina, which would have slowed if not stopped the rebellion from the outset. Buchanan was not a traitor, simply a fool.

Abr 13, 2011, 6:25 pm

could someone direct me where do i verify in the book this information: "Congress wouldn't let him because they thought he would steal the money and run away!" ?
thank you!
just the exact wording so i can search
thank you!

Dez 7, 2011, 1:11 pm

The Presidency of James Buchanan by Elbert B. Smith **** 12/5/11

Dense, readable, and informative, with detailed background on the coming of the Civil War and Lincoln's arrival on the national scene. Most interesting to me was Smith's discussion of why the South was so incensed by the North's refusal to give their moral blessing to slavery, and Buchanan's insistence on a Southern right to such approval. A little too much protesting, IMHO, if they all were really secure in their ethical stance in support of slavery. A very satisfying introduction to national politics of the time.

Jun 30, 2013, 4:08 pm

I read James Buchanan by Jean Baker, I felt like, even though she not did come across as a fan of Buchanan, she was fairly even-handed through most of the book. She admits his basic intelligence and overall political savvy, but questions why he didn't use it at crisis time, and instead, almost encouraged the southern states to secede. One of my Polk biographers didn't even give him that much credit! Buchanan was not a great president by anyone's standards, although I doubt that he alone was personally responsible for the Civil War.

Mar 16, 2014, 5:58 pm

Finally read the Baker book - widely hailed as the worst president ever, it's tempting to feel a bit sorry for the man except he probably does deserve the title. His siding with the south regarding slavery alienated so many people, the northern states where he was from, his whole political party, and the territory of Kansas as they tried to join the nation. He may have fared better if he had been president at a different time when he could focus on foreign policy, but he was elected when domestic issues dominated the agenda. Interesting and brief look at this life and presidency.

Jun 1, 2014, 6:46 am

The one by Philip S. Klein:

Well, this was a DUD! Written by the protege of Roy F. Nichols (the dude who wrote the Frankie P. biography), that fact alone should have tipped me off! While it was interesting to see what a legalist Buchanan was and it is clear he was not quite as ineffective as Buchanan, his lack of strong executive powers certainly did not slow the United States' march toward Civil War. While set-up generally in chronological order, the chapters on the presidency were grouped by topic which made it difficult to really piece together Buchanan's presidency as a whole.

Mar 22, 2016, 3:11 pm

President James Buchanan, a biography by Philip Shriver Klein

Finished this on 3-22-16. It was an Ebook from archives.org.

Liked it generally. Much insight into his Presidency. Went in to this book not really knowing a whole lot about him or his presidency.