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James Buchanan: The American Presidents Series: The 15th President, 1857-1861 Hardcover – June 7, 2004

3.7 out of 5 stars 67 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Review

"[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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Product Details

  • Series: The American Presidents
  • Hardcover: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Times Books; 1 edition (June 7, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805069461
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805069464
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.6 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (67 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #302,388 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By E. E Pofahl on September 8, 2004
Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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