I’ve been intermittently following the Times‘ “Disunion” series, not to be confused with Elizabeth Varon‘s masterful book of the same title, via Facebook, and yesterday’s post by Jean Baker caught my attention. She describes why James Buchanan deserves recognition for his extreme awfulness as a U.S. president, and she’s not alone in her opinion. The Siena Research Institute’s 2010 poll found Buchanan in the second from bottom slot, whereas a 2007 U.S. News and World Report poll found him in dead last. For Baker, Buchanan’s cronyism and the corruption that marked his administration are damning enough, but his Southern sympathies and failure to stave off sectional crisis really do him in. (As an aside, it’s no accident that the bottom ten in the USN&WR ranking is populated by men who held the office leading up to or immediately after the Civil War.) It’s worth pointing out that (anti-)slavery politics leading up to wartime were quite complicated, with a range of possible positions from anti-racist abolitionists to anti-black free-soilers to colonizationists to pro-slavery firebreathers. Abraham Lincoln, who consistently rates at or near the top of the list of best all-time U.S. preisdents, himself moved among anti-slavery positions. He supported plans to repatriate former slaves to Africa and to simply prohibit extending slavery into the western territories, expecting that it would die out on its own, before coming to abolitionism during the war. Whether or not he would have been able to secure black rights during the postbellum period is impossible to say, although the historical record suggests that he was more of a pragmatist than an idealist; it is likely that had he survived, freed blacks would not have fared much better than they did in our timeline.
In any case, the article caught my attention initially because I enjoy the lacunae of popular history, but stayed with me for what Baker says at the end. Our failed presidents, she argues, have much to tell us, and Buchanan failed “because he used that power with such partiality as an activist, ideologically driven executive. He had chosen sides in the great crisis and did not listen.” With an issue like slavery where morality is crystal clear in hindsight, her criticism of Buchanan makes sense, but what lessons about our current political dilemmas are we to draw from this? Is this an implicit criticism of Obama, who many on the right condemn as just such an activist executive, or of Republican congressional leaders recently returned to power in both state and federal governments, who seem hell-bent on settling ideological old scores? Or is this just an argument for centrism?
P.S. James Buchanan was a “confirmed bachelor” who lived in the White House with former Vice President William Rufus DeVane King, who just edges out Hannibal Hamlin for the title of Best-Named U.S. Vice President Ever. Here he is, in all his daguerreotypic glory:
What a hottie–no wonder Buchanan couldn’t pull it together. I think we have a new explanation for the outbreak of the Civil War: FROTTAGE.