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James Buchanan: The American Presidents Series: The 15th President, 1857-1861 Hardcover – June 7, 2004
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"[A] sweeping narrative, beautifully written and scrupulously evenhanded, [that] does full justice to Stevenson and his people.... Ambitious, elegiac, and provocative."
About the Author
Jean H. Baker is a professor of history at Goucher College. She is the author of several books, including The Stevensons and Mary Todd Lincoln, and is at work on a book about the suffrage movement. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland.
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Was Civil War inevitable by the time of Buchanan's presidency? It seems a fair question to ask. But Buchanan undeniably influenced the downward spiral of events by failing to grasp the course on which he allowed the country to slide. He was worse than inept and indecisive; he has been perhaps the only president in our history to become completely paralyzed in the face of crisis.
Baker persuasively argues that Buchanan set the stage for secession by feeding into southern fears that the Republican Party was a threat to the South's very existence. Once Abraham Lincoln was elected, Buchanan did virtually nothing to stanch the stampede of secession, beginning with an almost laissez-faire attitude towards the announced withdrawal of South Carolina from the Union.
Baker packs a lot into her account of Buchanan's rise to power and the events that transpired during his disastrous term. As she concludes, "Lincoln inherited the effects of Buchanan’s appeasement. These had made the Confederacy far more powerful than it might have been." Her very readable biography convinced this reader that the Buchanan presidency is worthy of its almost universal ranking as the worst in American history.
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.