45 of 46 people found the following review helpful
on September 8, 2004
The author, Jean Baker, wrote on page 1 "After the election of James Madison....no president had ever come to office with more impressive credentials. Nor, to this day, has any matched Buchanan's public positions." Buchanan served in the Pennsylvania state legislature, served in the U.S. House and Senate, was Andrew Jackson's minister to Russia, was secretary of state under James Polk, and was minister to the Court of St. James in the 1850s.
With his background, the question must be asked "why was Buchanan, arguably, our worst president?" The author states "This book seeks to suggest some of the reasons for Buchanan's failure and specifically to explain the gap between Buchanan's experience and training before his presidency and his lamentable performance in office.... only in the literal sense did the Civil War begin.... When the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter. It began in Buchanan's administration."
The book outlines Buchanan's political career. While still a Unionist, by the 1830s he was "more and more a states rights man" as he gravitated toward southerners after arriving in Washington and considered New Englanders radical extremists. By the 1840s, he opposed any interference with slavery and by then desperately wanted the presidency. In the Senate he espoused the principle of manifest destiny. As a bachelor he cultivated southern friends many of whom, as president, he included in his cabinet.
Having observed chief executives for more than thirty-five years, when Buchanan took the presidential oath in 1857, he knew more about the American presidency than anyone in the United States. However, the composition of his "cabinet revealed the incoming chief executive as no peacemaker...." Who was ".... surrounded by advisers who agree with him." The author narrates Buchanan's presidency as he moved from one ill-advised solution after another when solving critical problems. He continued his strong pro-southern attitude and acted accordingly. He unethically influenced the court's decision on the Dred Scott case, and seriously mishandled the situation in Kansas. The author notes "By taking the side of the South, Buchanan had split the Democrats, and in the process he had ensured his nightmare: the election of a Republican in 1860...." stating "The destructive effects of the president's policy were immediately apparent in the 1858 fall congressional elections when a disproportionate number of northern Democrats lost...."
The text gives a fascinating account of Buchanan's final year as president. The text notes that in 1857 Buchanan had sent troops into Utah to handle a problem with Brigham Young and the Mormons; yet when the secession crisis developed, and the Fort Sumter confrontation developed, he failed to respond firmly in like manner thereby encouraging secession. Amazingly his southern cabinet members and political associates treasonably passed critical government plans and information to the seceding state governments. Interestingly, the author notes "Buchanan's failing during the crisis over the Union was not inactivity, but rather his partiality for the south, a favoritism that bordered on disloyalty in an officer pledged to defend all the United States...." and continues "He was that most dangerous of chief executives, a stubborn, mistaken ideologue whose principles held no room for compromise."
The last chapter addresses the question why did such an experienced and intelligent politician failed so miserably as president of the United States? The text states "The answer speaks to one of the palpable characteristics of failed presidencies-the arrogant, wrongheaded, uncompromising use of power...."; and continues "His presidency did not suffer from feebleness or insufficient power or administration by a senile sixty-eight old. But the problem that he used the power with such partiality for the South." The author concludes "Ultimately Buchanan failed to interpret the United States."
The reader may ask why study a failed presidency. Such study is important for guidance it provides to future national leaders. In the words of George Santayana "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." The country can ill-afford another Buchanan type presidency.
Reading Buchanan's biography brings to mind the Peter Principle theory originated by Dr. Laurence J. Peter in 1969 regarding an individual being advanced to his level of incompetence. Clearly, Buchanan had a good resume; but when he advanced to a position where compromise, teamwork and leadership were paramount, he had reached his level of incompetence.
This should be a "must read" for those interested in the political/governmental aspects of the Civil War.
20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on April 10, 2008
There are 72 reviews of this brief and simply-written biography of a President who came to office with superb qualifications and who bungled the job that perhaps no one could have done. I found the book quite adequate as an introduction to the decade of the 1850s. Causes have to precede effects; anyone interested in the causes of the Civil War ought to have a good look at the events that led to Buchanan's election, and the dismal decision Buchanan made in reaction to those events. Honestly, however, you needn't buy the book. Just read the 72 reviews herewith. It will take some patience, and some tolerance for bad syntax, but it will reveal just exactly how polarizing the Civil War was, and still is.
This "American Presidents" series is surprisingly top notch. I also recommend the biography of US Grant, the most underrated and slandered chief exec of American history.
42 of 50 people found the following review helpful
Almost universally James Buchanan's administration is considered to be one of the worst presidencies in American history. Most of those who are considered our greatest presidents are so regarded because they performed admirably at times of great crisis or at key moments--Washington in helping to shape the concept of the office at its outset, Lincoln in holding together the Union and leading the nation at the moment of its greatest crisis, and FDR both during the Depression and during World War Two. Buchanan, however, is noteworthy for how miserably he performed in a moment of crisis. While tensions were greatly increasing between North and South, Buchanan not only misread the mood of the nation as a whole, he so completely favored Southern sympathies and inflamed Northern and Southern outrage that a deeper crisis was unavoidable, and when South Carolina seceded from the Union, did nothing to try and defuse the crisis. Buchanan's administration was distinguished not merely for what he did wrong, but for what he failed to do at time of greatest crisis.
Upon buying this book but before reading it, I checked on Amazon and read the reviews that already existed. Needless to say, the multiple one-star reviews were not very encouraging, and I was expecting a lesser effort in this series. Instead, I was surprised and delighted both at Jean Baker's high degree of scholarship and understanding of her subject, and at her superb facility in expressing herself, hardly the inarticulate, poorly informed historian some of the earlier reviewers detected. How to account for this? I have a theory. Although virtually any sane, rational reader of this or any balanced biography of Buchanan will inevitably be led to regard him as one of if not the worst president in American history, his memory is semi-sacred for people with either of two axes to grind. First, some who persist in holding a strong belief in states' rights revere him as an almost fanatical defender of that doctrine. Nevermind that he himself violated the principle by attempting to force slavery on the Kansas Territory when the people in the region strongly did not wish to be a slave state. Nonetheless, some who want to defend that doctrine are willing to overlook Buchanan's other inadequacies because of that tendency in his thought. Second, many of those who defend states' rights and even side with the South in the Civil War do not care for Lincoln, and one way to try and steal some of Lincoln's thunder is to attempt to make out that Buchanan wasn't the catastrophe that virtually all informed scholars view him as being. Therefore, it is entirely possible that some of the reviewers of this quite excellent biography will do so for reasons completely extraneous to the book itself.
For most readers, however, not enthrall to a quaint reading of the constitution, this will prove to be a superb short biography of America's worst president. Moreover, I found it somewhat refreshing to discover an author in this series who did indeed agree that her subject was a poor as history has recorded him to be. For instance, in John Dean's biography of Harding in the same series, he is determined to prove that Harding isn't the competitor with Buchanan for the title of worst president that he is often taken to deserve (that Dean largely carries his point is beside the point). Baker not only concedes that Buchanan was a failure as president and catalogs the host of ways in which he failed, she constructs some highly plausible explanations for why.
I will caution that this is a somewhat depressing book. One knows the result of his term in office. After Lincoln's election but before his inauguration, Buchanan oversaw the break up of the United States, with no significant actions to attempt its dissolution. Could timely action have prevented the Civil War? We will never know for sure, but we do know that Buchanan did nothing instead of something, and we know that he espoused a host of doctrines and made a number of decisions that did nothing to lessen the growing regional tensions in the nation in the late 1850s. Many Americans currently view our sitting president as among the worst in American history. If so, Buchanan represents his stiffest competition.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
One of the great debates in American history is about who is the greatest president of all time. Washington and Lincoln both have their proponents, with others arguing for someone else. A more interesting - or at least more amusing - debate focuses on who was the worst president ever. Usually at the top (or bottom) of this list are a pair of antebellum executives: Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan. Of these, Pierce is often given the dubious honor of "worst ever" but upon consideration, I think I will have to give the title to Buchanan.
Both men were awful presidents, contributing almost nothing positive while exacerbating events that would eventually lead to the Civil War. They were both pro-Southern Northerners (Buchanan from Pennsylvania, Pierce from New Hampshire), which led to their elections as candidates with wide geographical appeal, but their reluctance to take a strong stance on the divisive issues of the day - in particular, slavery and related problems - would eliminate any real hopes for peace.
What makes Buchanan worse than Pierce? Is it his support for the Dred Scott decision, his improper recognition of the Lecompton Consitution of Kansas or his weak initial response to the secession movement. Yes, to all these, but one thing stands out even more. Pierce was an inexperience politician plagued by family issues, so his ineptness could be expected. Buchanan, on the other hand, was a veteran politician, with decades of experience in various national posts including Secretary of State and U.S. Senator. The fact that he failed to use his skills as president - and often abdicated his responsibilities on domestic matters - makes him worse than the overmatched Pierce.
Jean Baker's brief biography of Buchanan (part of the American Presidents series) illustrates the failures of the Buchanan presidency and demonstrates that experience itself is no guide as to who will make a good president; his successor, Lincoln, had little political experience but was a much stronger president. Baker's writing is good and straightforward, and given the restraints of this series of books (limiting the volumes to around 150 pages each), she is quite detailed without being tedious. A more comprehensive biography by Philip Klein does exist, but Buchanan may not be worth the effort of a larger book unless you're a real fan of history. For most readers, Baker's book will be quite satisfactory.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on October 25, 2008
By now, the amazon community knows the drill: Few men entered the White House with as deep a resume as James Buchanan. Entries on his CV encompassed: Member of the Pennsylvania Legislature, election to the House of Representatives, appointments as Secretary of State and Ambassador to England. And yet, the common consent is that Buchanan blew it: His pro-Southern attitudes did nothing to forestall or prevent the Civil War. The guy is on most short lists of "Worst Presidents". The issue here is how does Professor Baker present the Buchanan story? The answer from this reviewer is not very well. Baker simply does not write clearly. This reader should not have had to go to About.com to learn details concerning such landmark legislation as the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Missouri Compromise, and the Compromise of 1850.Those were key milestones in the slavery dispute and deserved a full, clear airing in any biography of any President of the era. To make matters worse, the typesetting and paragraph spacing here are, to be charitable, awkward. Have mercy on those of us with bi-focals! Perhaps not compressing the tale into only 4 chapters might have helped. Professor Baker has every right to be critical, but she overplays her hand here. Her unrelentingly negative attitude toward Buchanan seems almost personal! Yes, the guy was a lonely bachelor with no apparent lady friends but did that absolutely make him a homosexual? Why does it matter if he truly was? The bottom line is that it is almost impossible to recommend such a turgid, dark piece of writing. James Buchanan was a key President, if a poor one. His story needs to be told but this reviewer feels Professor Baker has failed to do so on an even keel. There is a bright spot here: This bio is brief and quickly read. Those who dislike lengthy tomes have nothing to fear. The American Presidents series usually succeeds with brevity and has done so here. The good news ends there.
45 of 58 people found the following review helpful
on May 26, 2004
One of the most frequently cited risks faced by biographers is that of becoming too sympathetic with their subjects and thereby losing objectivity. However, biographical objectivity may also be undermined when an author holds a preconceived contempt for his subject before ever putting pen to paper. Such is the case with Jean Baker's biography of President James Buchanan.
It is clear that Professor Baker did not write this book because she is an admirer of the much maligned James Buchanan. However, it is equally clear that she did not write it as the result of any particular interest in Buchanan, or because she has anything new or significant to say about him. She wrote this book because the publishers of this series of Presidential biogrpahies needed someone to do the Buchanan bio, and, apparently, figured that Jean Baker would do as well as anyone else. Baker, a professor at Goucher College, previously wrote a book about Mary Todd Lincoln. Perhaps the publishers felt that this work was chronologically close enough to roughly qualify her to write about Buchanan.
At times,however, one almost gets the feeling that Baker bitterly resents having gotten the assignment of writing the biography of one of the lowest ranked Presidents, the more glamorous Presiential biographies having been offered to better known authors. This cursory and sloppily researched work gives every appearance having been written in a hurry and in a state of resentment. It is permeated by a tone of of personal attack and mean-spiritedness. The author's analysis of Buchanan is offered almost completely without reference to primary source material. The level of her analysis is likewise adolescent. Take, for example, the following insights she offers about the influence of Buchanan's unmarried state: "Certainly bachelorhood has always been an exceptional and potentially harmful status for any public man in any generation. Before the Civil War only three of every one hundred American men stayed single. Buchanan's celibacy...shaped his personality. His life was never modulated by the need to make compromising adjustments in his domestic affairs, nor did he benefit from the intimacy, affection, and relaxation (?) that marriage and a family might have afforded. An often lonely James Buchanan came to rely on his male friends, and this reliance had dramatic impact on American history in the winter of 1860." (Baker, 21-22). It is difficult not to conclude that the foregoing passage implies that all single men are uptight, unable to compromise,or be receptive to intimacy or affection. That such a patently bigoted statement could be presented in the guise of analysis in a "serious" Presidential biography is difficult to fathom.
This book relies on almost no primary source material. It also contains strings of unattributed quotes. A glance at the end notes quickly betrays the book's utter lack of scholarship. There are approximately only six citations per chapter, and almost all of these are to secondary sources. By comparison, John Seginthaler's biography of James K. Polk in this same Presidential series contains approximately sixty citations per chapter, and many of these are to primary sources. Philip S. Klein's 1962 biography of Buchanan (still the most authoratative biography of the fifteenth President)contains approximately an average of fifty to seventy citations per chapter, the majority of them from primary sources.
Baker states that "By every measure except his own...Buchanan was an abysmal failure as chief executive." The same description provides an apt summary of Jean Baker's puerile foray into the field of Presidential biography.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on February 17, 2005
This is the first book of the American Presidents series that I have read. It is, as editor Arthur Schlesinger notes, "compact enough for the busy reader, lucid enough for the student, authoritative enough for the scholar." In this 152-page work, Jean Baker examines the reasons Buchanan, while one of the most politically qualified men to take the office of President, failed to keep the Union strong during the country's most crucial period in its history.
Baker describes Buchanan's early life and career. He served in the House of Representative, the U.S. Senate, was Minister of Russia under President Jackson, Secretary of State for James K. Polk, and Minister to Great Britain in President Pierce's administration (she covers the latter position fairly thoroughly), and had even been offered a seat on the Supreme Court (he rejected it). He had better political credentials than most presidents before or since and, on the surface, appeared to be the ideal president to handle the increasingly dangerous situation between the North and the South. He was a Unionist but also a states rights man and he represented the one political institution that still had a following both North and South; the Democratic party. Baker clearly demonstrates the reasons Buchanan was not the right man to save the Union.
A few of Buchanan's leadership weaknesses covered include his hostile opinion of abolitionist groups that were fairly powerful even in his home state of Pennsylvania, his cavalier attitude towards the emerging Republican party (he called it a "geographical" and "dangerous" party which; an attitude that, in Bakers opinion, contributed to the growing schism between the North and South), his unrelenting loyalty towards his southern friends, and his arrogance in his own political abilities to save the Union. The author divides Buchanan's Presidency into three parts: the economic panic of 1857, crisis in Utah's Mormon community, and the near-war developing in the Kansas territory. The latter topic receives the most attention. Buchanan's unwavering support of the minority, pro-slavery Lecompton government clearly demonstrates where Buchanan's loyalties lay, alienating northern Democrats and even prompting a House investigation (p. 113). It is important to note that Buchanan had moral objections to slavery but did not believe the peculiar institution was worth endangering the Union. Even more revealing is what Buchanan did, or did not do, during the interim before Lincoln's inauguration.
Baker shows that Buchanan was not a do-nothing President as some critics maintain, but a very active executive of the model of Jackson and Polk. He acted, however, for one side. Baker saves her harshest criticism for the end: "Buchanan's failing during the crisis over the Union was not inactivity, but rather his partiality for the South, a favoritism that bordered on disloyalty in an officer pledged to defend all the United States" (141). She implies that a different reaction to the events at Fort Sumter could have saved the Union; a position that is impossible to prove. Not very significant but one statement: "Buchanan was the last Democratic president for twenty-four years, until Grover Cleveland was elected in 1884" is incorrect without the qualification "last `elected' Democratic president" as Andrew Johnson was a Democrat (p. 119) For the most part, the book is clearly written; however, some areas (i.e. the difference between Buchanan's views on slavery versus Stephen A. Douglas' popular sovereignty) could have been better explained. The reader will need some background knowledge to fully understand this book. She does an excellent job, however, using Buchanan's upbringing and social habits to explain his affinity towards the South. She mentions his bachelorhood and alleged homosexuality but does not dwell on them. In my opinion, the author is tough on her subject but also fair. I recommend this book to anyone interested in Buchanan or the political situation on the brink of the Civil War yet does not have the time to read massive volumes.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
James Buchanan came to the presidency with a wonderful resume. And he failed dismally. This brief biography, part of the well done "The American Presidents" series, tries to explain that disconnect. In the recurring introduction to each volume in the series that he edited, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. remarked that (Page xvii) "To succeed, presidents must not only have a port to seek but they must convince Congress and the electorate that it is a port worth seeking." And "there's the rub" for Buchanan.
His background was impeccable: Pennsylvania state legislature, U. S. House of Representatives and Senate, Secretary of State, Ambassador to Russia and England. As Jean Baker, the author of this slim volume says (Page 7): "Critical times often summon forth our best presidents, and it is worth taking the measure of those presidents who, given the opportunity, failed to rise to greatness. James Buchanan was one of those."
The Democratic nomination for president culminated at the Convention. Franklin Pierce (incumbent president), Stephen Douglas, Lewis Cass, and Buchanan. After some maneuvering, Buchanan's supporters helped get him the nomination.
After his election, though, he ran into a buzz saw: a panic (depression), violence in Kansas, and the horrific "Dred Scott" Supreme Court decision. Buchanan selected a Cabinet that was very much pro-Southern, some of his closest allies were from the South, and he alienated Democrats such as Stephen Douglas. He did not recognize the danger of the slavery issue and watched as his pro-Southern stance split the Democratic Party, enabling the one thing anathema to him to occur--the election of a Republican in 1860, Abraham Lincoln.
Why did he fail so miserably? Unreflective prosouthernism is one part of the explanation, according to Baker. Other factors--his arrogant and uncompromising use of power.
So, an interesting essay on a failed president. I think that personality quirks might be overemphasized in this book. Overall, though, a useful volume for those who want a quick introduction to the presidents.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
This book makes clear that James Buchanan was the wrong man to attempt to steer the United States through the slavery crisis that came to a head in the late 1850s. Buchanan was certainly credentialed enough, having served as a Representative and Senator, Secretary of State, and foreign minister to Russia and England. Buchanan was well-to-do by his thirties as a well-connected and capable lawyer in Lancaster, PA, but in his governmental career he never demonstrated any beyond mediocre talents. He seemed to be more concerned with social formalities and decorum, which led him to identify over his entire life with the pseudo-aristocratic Southern plantation life. In fact, he modeled his large home and household in PA along those lines.
Buchanan surrounded himself with Southerners when he became President, completely disdainful of the growing anti-slavery currents in the American political mainstream. He supported the radical Southern insistence that slaves should be allowed to be taken into all Federal territories with slavery then being defended by slave codes. This was a radical departure from the intent of the founders and the Missouri Compromise of 1820. That support contributed to the split of Southern Democrats from Douglas Democrats, who only supported the right of territorial residents to decide through voting, which counterproductively led to the ascension of the hated Republicans. Buchanan had, unethically, lobbied individual justices of the Supreme Court involved with the Dred Scott case that resulted in the ruling that excluding slavery from Federal territories was unconstitutional.
Buchanan was highly sympathetic to the wild claims of the Southern "fire-eaters" that the rise of the "Black" Republican Party was a threat to Southern "liberty." He basically sat on his hands when South Carolina seceded only a few weeks after Lincoln was fairly elected in accordance with all Constitutional provisions. Instead of immediately trying to quell the Southern rebellion, Buchanan gave the secession credibility by negotiating with representatives from the seceding states, in addition, to freely revealing possible strategies to potential enemies. His handling of the Fort Sumter situation was disgraceful, permitting South Carolina to control events and ensuring the taking of Fort Sumter.
It could be that the United States was simply unlucky in having two of the more inept Presidents serve at a time of national crisis, that is, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan. Yet this seems to happen quite a bit in America. Herbert Hoover comes to mind during the Great Depression. When small-minded, ideologically minded men serve at a time when inventive leadership is needed, the results can be disastrous. It will no doubt strike many readers that we are currently in a Buchanan-like era. The current administration is intent on running the nation in a manner evocative of the era of robber-barons of the late 19th century, ignoring very serious social and economic issues. One can only wonder what the fallout will be.
The author is harsh in her judgment of James Buchanan. He was everything but the Andrew Jackson Democrat that he claimed to be. In fact, Jackson would have found Buchanan's reaction to the secession as nothing short of traitorous. She does not accept the view that Buchanan was helpless against events. In fact, he contributed to the precipitation of nation-splitting events. This book is a great lesson for the need of great leaders for our nation. The book is short; the reader probably needs to be somewhat versed in the history of the era for it to be completely understandable. But it is worth reading.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on March 16, 2005
Jean Baker is not subtle. Right from the outset, she makes it clear that James Buchanan was one of the worst presidents ever. He was a man who served as a state legislator in Pennsylvania, congressman, senator, Secretary of State and minister to the Court of Saint James. Yet, despite this extensive resume', when he finally became president at age 65, he failed. The United States, as it moved ever closer to disunion and Civil War, had a series of weak presidents who were unable to handle the situation, most notably, Millard Fillmore and Franklin Pierce. Baker argues that Buchanan was a poor president but not because of similar weaknesses. Rather, he was quite active but pursued dreadfully wrong policies.
As a young congressman, Buchanan became friendly with southern congressmen and senators and, in fact boarded with some of them. Because he was a bachelor, there is speculation as to whether there was a homosexual component to his relationships. Regardless, he came to identify with the South and with its cause of slavery. Although a northerner, he supported slavery but then again, his home state of Pennsylvania was a lot closer geographically to slave states than to New England. He had sectional differences with New Englanders and disliked them intensely.
Before he became president, Buchanan was a staunch supporter of "manifest destiny" and, serving in the Polk administration, helped to advance that policy. No only did he want to expand west, he also wanted to expand south, seeking to expand our borders into Mexico, Central America and Cuba. This desire to acquire territory extended into his presidency. One of the reasons was to add new slave territory to the United States. As presdient, He actively sought to admit Kansas as a slave state and, despited the fact that the majority of residents of Kansas were aginst slavery, he attempted to rig elections on the ratification of a pro slavery state constitution. There is evidence, that as president elect, Buchanan lobbied Supreme Court Justices to rule as they did on the Dred Scott case. Buchanan was shortsighted in that he thought that once an issue was decided, whether it was the Dred Scott decision or the adoption of a pro slavery constituion, the issue would go away. Abolitionsist were not, however, going to give up their opposition to slavery any more than someone who is "pro life" would give up opposition to abortion following Roe v. Wade. Thus, his extreme pro slavery approach ended up dividing the nation even more.
After actively supporting slavery and the southern cause, Buchanan was slow to act when South Carolina seceded after Lincoln's election. He continued to be advised by cabinet members and advisors from states which were soon to also secede. He did not immediately move to secure United States installations in the south, such as Fort Sumter and, indeed he weakened the United States' position there by ordering that federal troops withdraw to the much less defensible Fort Moultrie. Although he stated that secession was wrong, he also stated that constitutionally, there was nothing he could do about it. Thus, upon his taking office, Lincoln inherited a divided nation due to Buchanan's failure to act early and decisively when South Carolina left the Union.
This book is fascinating. We often read about great presidents but Buchanan's failures had enormous consequences. This biography is a worthwhile historical profile of the time immediately leading to the Civil War.