Today is Presidents Day. It’s a federal holiday, set aside to commemorate the men who have held the office of Chief Executive of our nation. This year we will choose another one, the 45th in our history. Who will he be? Will it be a she this time? The next ten months will tell the tale. Whoever it is, that person will be inaugurated on January 20th, 2017, with hopes of eventually being ranked among the best presidents of all time. The odds against him, or her, will be great, because the competition is stiff.
Back in 2009, shortly after Barack Obama took office, MSNBC published a ranking of all 42 previous presidents. They left Obama off the list; he’d only been on the job for a little under four weeks, so they decided to give him some more time.
The survey of some 65 historians and presidential scholars by C-SPAN was similar to a survey from 2000, only this one included Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, who was ranked 36th out of 42. I have a feeling that may move up in years to come; Harry Truman, for instance, was ranked 5th. When he left office in 1953, Truman had the lowest approval rankings in the history of presidential polling—yes, even lower than Bush’s. The perspective of time has elevated Give-’em-hell Harry into the pantheon of greatness. Will the historians of 2065 do the same with Bush? We’ll see. (Well, some of us might.)
To nobody’s surprise, Abraham Lincoln topped both lists. Lincoln has been much in the news in the last year or so, as the nation noted the 150th anniversaries of the end of the Civil war and Lincoln’s subsequent assassination. He remains one of our most interesting and inspiring presidents, to say the least. In 2012, Steven Spielberg’s movie Lincoln, based on the book Team of Rivals by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, drew respectable box-office numbers. Daniel Day-Lewis won an Academy Award for his portrayal of the 16th president.
The top five had not changed very much since the 2000 survey. Lincoln was followed now by George Washington, then by Franklin Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, and Truman. Washington and FDR were reversed in the earlier survey. Rounding out the ’09 survey’s top 10: John Kennedy, Thomas Jefferson, Dwight Eisenhower, Woodrow Wilson and Ronald Reagan. The bottom five, starting at 38th: Warren Harding, William Henry Harrison, Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson and James Buchanan. (For those of you counting, that is 42 presidents. Grover Cleveland served non-consecutive terms and was officially both the 22nd and 24th president, so while Barack Obama is the 44th president, only 42 men have held the office before him.)
Jimmy Carter dropped 3 spots from 2000, down to 25th, only two ahead of Richard Nixon, who had dropped two slots himself. Bill Clinton, who was in his final year during the first survey but was ranked anyway, showed the greatest movement upward, from 21 to 15. Personally, I think rating Clinton seven spots ahead of Gerald Ford is ridiculous. The 2009 survey said that “moral authority” was one of the ten categories used to rate the presidents, but the articles I read did not list the standings of every chief executive in each category. If Clinton, for instance, rated low in “moral authority,” then he must’ve been ranked very high indeed in the other categories, such as “relations with Congress,” “public persuasion,” “international relations” and “economic management.” Clinton was the second president in history to have been impeached; the first was Andrew Johnson, and he ranked next-to-last.
It is interesting that the greatest president, Lincoln, was the one who immediately followed the worst, Buchanan, into the White House. Everybody knows a lot about Lincoln—born in a log cabin in Kentucky, became a lawyer in Illinois, debated Steven Douglas while campaigning for the Senate (Lincoln lost the election), grew his beard while on his way to Washington to take office, freed the slaves, won the Civil War, and then was assassinated only days after the surrender of the Confederacy. But what about Buchanan? Who was he, and why was he such a terrible president?
They called him Old Buck.
Buchanan was singular in many respects. He was the last president to be born in the 18th century (1791); he was the only one, so far, to hail from Pennsylvania; and he was the only president who never married (leading some scholars and gay activists to claim that Buchanan was a homosexual). Like his successor, he was born in a log cabin, into a family of 10 children. He managed to make it to college, was expelled for wild behavior, was reinstated and graduated with honors. He became a lawyer and fought as a cavalryman in the War of 1812, even though he had opposed the war; he remains the only president to serve in the military who was not an officer. He was a Mason, served a term in the Pennsylvania legislature and then for ten years in the Congress, where he chaired the House Judiciary Committee. During the administration of Andrew Jackson he served as ambassador to Russia. After that 19-month posting, he was elected to the Senate and later nominated to the Supreme Court by President James K. Polk, but Buchanan turned it down.
Prior to his presidency, Buchanan had a significant impact on American foreign policy. He accepted Polk’s offer to be Secretary of State and negotiated the Oregon Treaty of 1846 with the British, which set the 49th parallel as our northwestern border with Canada, possibly averting a war—many Americans had wanted the border much further north, at 54 degrees 40 minutes, and there was even a pro-war slogan going around, “Fifty-four forty or fight!” This would have given us most of what is now British Columbia, all the way to the southeastern tip of Alaska. A few years later, Buchanan served as President Franklin Pierce’s ambassador to Great Britain, during which time he helped draft the Ostend Manifesto, a proposal to buy Cuba from Spain and turn it into a slave state. That one never got off the ground, and more than 40 years later we would wind up taking Cuba from Spain by force of arms and guiding the island to independence. History is sometimes ironic. Had Buchanan’s effort succeeded, Fidel Castro might today be a retired major league ballplayer living out his days as an American citizen.
Buchanan reluctantly accepted the Democratic nomination for president in 1856 and defeated the Republicans’ very first candidate, John C. Fremont. The country was severely strained by the issue of slavery, as territorial expansion moved westward and slave-holding states wanted to maintain the balance of power in Congress by ensuring that slavery would be allowed in at least half of any new states. In his inaugural, which was the first ever to be photographed, Buchanan promised not to run again in 1860, and also said that the issue of slavery in the territories was “happily, a matter of but little practical importance,” as the Supreme Court was about to make a ruling on the issue. Two days later, the Court issued its infamous Dred Scott Decision, which among other things asserted that Congress had no authority to prevent slavery in the territories. Buchanan was said to have personally lobbied some of the justices to vote with the majority. Chief Justice Roger Taney, in fact, was an alumnus of Buchanan’s alma mater, Dickinson College.
The wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Things went downhill from there for Old Buck. An avowed supporter of slave-owners rights, he used political influence and even bribery to try and bring Kansas into the union as a slave state. Although never a slave-owner himself, Buchanan came to symbolize the “doughface,” a Northern man with Southern principles. In 1857, a financial panic caused Buchanan to try and prop up the economy with deficit spending, which didn’t work. It’s a good thing we’ve learned that lesson, isn’t it? Later that year, hearing unconfirmed reports that the Mormons in Utah Territory were planning an insurrection, Buchanan sent the army to put down the supposed revolt. Bad weather forced the troops to stay in Wyoming for the winter, and by the time the army got to Utah things had quieted down and Governor Brigham Young stepped down voluntarily.
By 1860, it was obvious that Buchanan’s Democratic Party would split over the slavery issue and that the Republicans would win the White House. Many Southern states started talking secession, and while Buchanan said it would be illegal for them to secede, he also said the federal government had no authority to stop them. By the time he left office in March 1861, the Confederacy had been formed and there’d already been some shooting, about which Buchanan did nothing. He was just looking forward to getting out and back to his estate in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. On his last day in the White House, he told Lincoln, “If you are as happy in entering the White House as I shall feel on returning to Wheatland, you are a happy man.”
Was Old Buck gay? Probably not. At age 28 he had been engaged to Anne Caroline Coleman, the daughter of a wealthy businessman, but there was talk he was marrying her only for her family’s money and political influence, and besides that he was often linked with other women. Finally, after Buchanan allegedly engaged in a tryst with a married woman, his fiancee broke the engagement. She died soon after, perhaps from a drug overdose, and her embittered family refused Buchanan permission to attend her funeral. Apparently this hit him hard; he vowed that he would never marry, as his only true love was now in the grave. He kept her letters for the rest of his life and ordered them burned upon his own death. What prompts the gay talk is Buchanan’s long friendship with William Rufus King, a senator from Alabama with whom Buchanan shared lodgings in Washington for 15 years. There is no doubt that the men were close; they often attended social functions together, and Andrew Jackson referred to them as “Miss Nancy and Aunt Fancy.” King was elected vice-president on Franklin Pierce’s ticket in 1852 but died of tuberculosis shortly after taking office. Much of the two men’s correspondence was destroyed by relatives, fueling the later rumors, but what survives doesn’t prove anything other than that the two men were close friends. There’s little doubt that King, a southerner, influenced Buchanan with respect to states’ rights and slavery. In his third message to Congress—in those days, presidents simply sent a letter that was read to the members—Buchanan claimed that slaves were “treated with kindness and humanity…Both the philanthropy and the self-interest of the master have combined to produce this humane result.”
A few historians have been willing to give Buchanan a break. In his 1995 biography of the 15th president, Philip Klein noted that Buchanan had taken office when partisan passions about slavery were about to boil over. “That he held the hostile sections in check during these revolutionary times was in itself a remarkable achievement,” Klein wrote. But Buchanan’s own contemporaries, aside from King, evidently didn’t hold him in very high regard. President Polk thought enough of him to offer him the Supreme Court seat and make him Secretary of State, but confided in his diary, “Mr. Buchanan is an able man but is in small matter without judgment and sometimes acts like an old maid.” By the way, if Hillary Clinton wins the presidency this year, she will be the first former SecState since Buchanan to get the top job. Five former secretaries, beginning with Thomas Jefferson, served as president prior to Buchanan. A lot of very able men and women have gone through Foggy Bottom since then, including Daniel Webster, Elihu Root, George C. Marshall, Colin Powell (my personal favorite) and Condoleeza Rice, but none have so far made it to the Oval Office, at least as the main occupant. Several served as secretary after unsuccessful runs for the White House, including James G. Blaine (who actually served two hitches with his 1884 presidential run in between), William Jennings Bryan, and the incumbent, John Kerry.
In 1866, Buchanan published his memoirs, the first ex-president to do so. He died two years later at the age of 77, having fulfilled his vow to stay single. On the day before his death, he predicted “history will vindicate my memory.” Historians, however, consistently have said that Buchanan’s failure to deal forcefully with secession was the greatest mistake in the history of the presidency. Wherever he is, Old Buck is still waiting for them to give him a break.