Dead Presidents

Historical facts, thoughts, ramblings and collections on the Presidency and about the Presidents of the United States.

By Anthony Bergen
E-Mail: bergen.anthony@gmail.com
Posts tagged "James Buchanan"
JAMES BUCHANAN

15th President of the United States (1857-1861)

Full Name: James Buchanan, Jr.
Born: April 23, 1791, Cove Gap, Pennsylvania
Political Party: Democratic
State Represented: Pennsylvania
Term: March 4, 1857-March 4, 1861
Age at Inauguration: 65 years, 315 days
Administration: 18th
Congresses: 35th and 36th
Vice President: John Cabell Breckinridge (1857-1861)
Died: June 1, 1868, Wheatland estate, Lancaster, Pennsylvania
Age at Death: 77 years, 39 days
Buried: Woodward Hill Cemetery, Lancaster, Pennsylvania

2012 Dead Presidents Ranking: 43 out of 43 [↔]

Poor Mr. Buchanan.  One of the most qualified men to ever serve as President, and, in my opinion, the absolute worst.  Perhaps no one could have succeeded in the years leading immediately up to the outbreak of the Civil War, but President Buchanan occupies the bottom spot not merely because states began to secede from the Union while he was in the White House, but because he did nothing about it.  There were no flashes of hope during the Buchanan Administration — from the day that he inherited a crumbling nation from Franklin Pierce, the 15th President was in office for the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision (which he strongly agreed with), rising tension between settlers in Kansas, the Panic of 1857, and, finally, secession.  All Buchanan did was watch the calendar and happily flee to his estate in Pennsylvania after Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration.

PREVIOUS RANKINGS:
1948: Schlesinger Sr./Life Magazine:  26 of 29
1962: Schlesinger Sr./New York Times Magazine:  29 of 31
1982: Neal/Chicago Tribune Magazine:  36 of 38
1990: Siena Institute:  38 of 40
1996: Schlesinger Jr./New York Times Magazine:  38 of 39
2000: C-SPAN Survey of Historians:  41 of 41
2000: C-SPAN Public Opinion Poll:  41 of 41
2005: Wall Street Journal/Presidential Leadership:  40 of 40
2009: C-SPAN Survey of Historians:  42 of 42
2010: Siena Institute:  42 of 43
2011: University of London’s U.S. Presidency Centre:  40 of 40

Whatever may have been the effect of Mr. Buchanan’s elevation to the Presidency and of the possession of its overshadowing powers upon himself he was, assuredly, before that occurrence, a cautious, circumspect, and sagacious man.
Martin Van Buren, contrasting James Buchanan’s impressive early political career with his lackluster performance as President
Mr. Buchanan’s real trouble is that he cannot use my Administration and shape his course according to his own ever varying whims, in order to promote his aspirations to the Presidency. He cares nothing for the success or glory of my Administration further than he can make it subservient to his own political aspirations…The truth is that the scheming and intriguing about the Presidential election, and especially by Mr. Buchanan, is seriously embarrassing my Administration.

James K. Polk, on his frustration with his Secretary of State James Buchanan for actively working to position himself as the leading candidate to succeed Polk as President and neglecting (in Polk’s mind) his duties in Polk’s Cabinet, personal diary entry, February 24, 1848.

From almost the beginning of his Administration, President Polk had pledged to only serve a single term and never had any intention to change his mind and seek reelection in 1848. However, Polk was almost universally dismissive — particularly in entries that he made in his White House diary — of nearly every person whose name was mentioned as a possible successor, regardless of whether they were fellow Democrats or members of the Whig Party. Polk was also adamant that members of his Cabinet refrain from partisan politics — even throughout 1848 as the Democrats were seeking a strong Presidential candidate who might be able to beat whichever former General fresh from military glory in the Mexican-American War — Zachary Taylor or Winfield Scott — was nominated by the Whigs.

Despite Polk’s efforts, Buchanan did seek the Democratic nomination in 1848, but lost to Lewis Cass, who was defeated by Zachary Taylor in the general election (Cass later served as Secretary of State when Buchanan was eventually elected President). Buchanan also unsuccessfully sought the 1852 Democratic nomination, losing out to dark horse Franklin Pierce who was suggested to the deadlocked Democratic National Convention as a compromise candidate and finally nominated after 49 ballots.

President Pierce nominated Buchanan to serve as U.S. Minister to Great Britain and being out of the country throughout the travails of the Pierce Administration and the worsening sectional crises over slavery was probably instrumental in Buchanan finally achieving his long-awaited goal of becoming President. In 1856, Pierce became the first President to be denied renomination by his own party as the Democrats turned to Buchanan instead. James K. Polk probably wouldn’t have been happy with his former Secretary of State’s election, but Polk had died just three months after leaving office in 1849. Although Buchanan had been mentioned as potential contender for the Presidency and was perhaps better qualified for the position than anyone else ever elected to the job, the nation’s troubles quickly worsened after he was sworn in and Buchanan never fulfilled the expectations many Americans had for a President with his experience. Today, he is considered one of the worst Presidents in American history.

It was as far as I could send him out of my sight, and where he could do the least harm. I would have sent him to the North Pole if we had kept a minister there!
Andrew Jackson, expressing his opposition to James K. Polk’s nomination of James Buchanan as Secretary of State despite his own appointment of Buchanan as U.S. Minister to Russia during his Presidency, 1845
It is hard to realize that a State or States should commit so suicidal an act as to secede from the Union. Though from all the reports I have no doubt but that at least five of them will do it. And then, with the present granny of an executive [James Buchanan] some foolish policy will doubtless be pursued which will give the seceding States the support and sympathy of the Southern states that don’t go out.

Ulysses S. Grant, on the possibility of Southern states seceding from the Union and his doubts about how (or “if”) President James Buchanan might respond, personal letter, December 1860.

Grant had not always had such a harsh opinion of the “granny of an executive”, President Buchanan. While writing his Memoirs in 1885, Grant remembered that, “In 1856…I preferred the success of a candidate whose election would prevent or postpone secession, to seeing the country plunged into a war the end of which no many could foretell. With a Democrat elected by unanimous vote of the Slave States, there could be no pretext for secession for four years…I therefore voted for James Buchanan for President.”

John Hay was one of America’s great diplomats.  He served overseas during the Administrations of Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant, worked in the State Department of Rutherford B. Hayes, and held the nation’s top two diplomatic posts — Ambassador to the Court of St. James and Secretary of State under Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt.

Hay also may have been one of 19th Century America’s most prolific and talented writers, an astute observer of everything and everybody.  Late in life, he and his close friend Henry Adams became such institutions of Washington, D.C. society that today the Hay-Adams Hotel is literally one of Washington, D.C.’s great institutions.

But in March 1861, the 22-year-old Hay was in the nation’s capital for the very first time, and he was there as one of the two private secretaries (along with John Nicolay) to Abraham Lincoln, who was about to be inaugurated President of a rapidly fracturing United States.  Even at that young age, however, Hay’s gifts of observation were apparent — and one of the reasons why Lincoln had brought the young man with him to Washington from Illinois.

On March 4, 1861, Lincoln was inaugurated, and Hay was nearby when Lincoln met with the outgoing President James Buchanan.  With Southern states seceding and Civil War approaching, Hay was curious to hear what advice or words of warning President Buchanan might have for his successor.  As he later wrote, “I waited with boyish wonder and credulity to see what momentous counsels were to come from that gray and weather-beaten head.  Every word must have its value at such an instant.”

Buchanan had spent decades in Washington and his Presidency had taken place in one of the most difficult moments of American history — a moment that Lincoln was now sharing.  As John Hay listened carefully, the 15th President, with his head cocked to the left to compensate for the fact that one of his eyes was nearsighted and one of his eyes was farsighted, spoke to the 16th President.  

What Buchanan said to Lincoln was memorable to Hay, albeit not very momentous:  ”I think you will find the water of the right-hand well at the White House better than that at the left.”  Hay would recall that Buchanan “went on with many intimate details of the kitchen and pantry.  Lincoln listened with that weary, introverted look of his, not answering, and the next day, when I recalled the conversation, admitted he had not heard a word of it.”

Asker Anonymous Asks:
Do you think Secretary of State would be a good stepping stone to the presidency today, or that the offices are too distinct now?
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

At the beginning of the 19th Century, being Secretary of State was almost a guarantee that you’d be elected President.  Five of the first eight Presidents had served as Secretary of State, including three (James Madison, James Monroe, and John Quincy Adams) who went directly to the White House from serving two terms as Secretary of State.  But it’s been nearly 160 years since the last Secretary of State — James Buchanan, who ran President Polk’s State Department from 1845 to 1849 — was elected President.  

I think it’s more difficult now for a couple of reasons.  First of all, Secretaries of State aren’t nearly as powerful now.  The Vice Presidency is a far more influential position today than it was in the 18th, 19th, and first half of the 20th Century, the White House Chief of Staff handles the Administration’s COO-type responsibilities that many Secretaries previously took on, and as other Cabinet posts have increased their profile within the Executive Department it has diminished the power of the Secretary of State, especially when there are turf wars like the feud between Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld.  The Secretary of State used to be a Foreign Minister-type position that was basically just short of being equivalent to a Prime Minister; in many ways, the Secretary of State used to be (unofficially) the first-among-equals within the Cabinet.  That changed a bit early in the 20th Century, but especially in the latter part of the last century.  Basically since Nixon’s Presidency, American foreign policy is almost fully run by the White House through the National Security Staff (formerly known as the National Security Council).  The Secretary of State is a member of the National Security Staff and has a role in formulating that policy, of course, but they are more like Super Ambassadors who go where the President sends them and relays messages.  They have always been the top American diplomat, but the job now is much more political, domestically and internationally, than administrative.

Another reason why you don’t see more Secretaries of State running for President directly from the State Department is purely political.  If a President serves a single term, a Secretary of State isn’t going to be an ideal candidate because they’d have to challenge their boss.  If a President serves two terms, there is usually voter fatigue when it comes to the President and his Cabinet.  After two terms, the opposition party will have been sharpening their knives and getting ready for the Presidential election.  A Secretary of State who has either served two terms in office or wants to run for President directly from the State Department after one term in the Cabinet is an easy target.  All Presidents eventually become lame ducks and if someone is serving in their Cabinet as the President’s popularity starts to take a dive, they’ll usually be painted with that same brush.  It’s easy to run against them — whether you’re from the other party or challenging them in the primary.

Hillary Clinton would have a more difficult race in front of her if she were serving as Secretary of State in Obama’s Cabinet right now.  It would be easier to connect her with an unpopular President who is rapidly heading towards lame duck status if she were currently in the Cabinet.  Since she left after the first term, on her own terms, after Obama had been re-elected, she basically left at the perfect time — it’s like when an athlete retires after winning a championship.  If you go out on top, you control your destiny and shore up your legacy.  So, that’s why no Secretaries of State have been elected President since Buchanan in 1856 and few have even won their party’s nomination.  But, if things play out the way I think they will, Hillary will end that drought in 2016.      

Asker Anonymous Asks:
Was James Buchanan gay?
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

I’ve been asked this question so many times that it’s just easier to repost my earlier answer:

First of all, this is all going to be speculation, so take my opinion about this subject very lightly.  Secondly, please understand that I am socially liberal, so I don’t care whether or not a President is gay or straight as long as he or she can do the job.

It is very difficult to say that this President or that President was gay or not without simply guessing or making baseless accusations.  My personal opinion is that it’s not our business to say that someone is or is not gay unless they choose to address it and make it our business.

It’s even more difficult to go back through history and say “so-and-so was obviously a homosexual because ___________”.  I mean, let’s be honest, the first five Presidents wore knee breeches, buckled shoes, and powdered wigs, so we’d already be overloaded with suspicion right there.

Without going too far and becoming gossipy and National Enquirer-ish, I will point out the evidence which some believe strongly suggests that James Buchanan, the 15th President of the United States, was homosexual. 

Buchanan was a lifelong bachelor — the only President to never marry.  Early in life, he had been engaged to Ann Coleman, the daughter of a wealthy Pennsylvania manufacturer who began worrying about rumors that Buchanan was marrying her for her money.  After a difficult period in their relationship, Coleman broke off the engagement in 1819 and died shortly thereafter, likely by suicide.  Buchanan was devastated by Coleman’s death and was shunned by Coleman’s family who blamed him for Ann’s demise.  At that time, Buchanan vowed to never marry and he retained Ann Coleman’s letters for the remainder of his life. 

It is possible that Buchanan was so devastated by the death of his first love that he couldn’t imagine spending his life with another woman.  However, that doesn’t explain why he spent so much of his life with another man.

In 19th Century Washington, D.C., it was not unusual for Members of Congress to room together in boarding houses while Congress was in session.  Many political deals were debated and decided in Washington’s boarding houses which were set up to appeal to a Congressman’s need for prepared meals and affordable housing.  Buchanan, however, was a fairly wealthy man for his age and time period.  The affordable housing that resulted from taking on a roommate wasn’t a necessity for Buchanan.  It was a choice.  And, instead of living with a variety of different colleagues over the years, Buchanan lived with one — Alabama Senator William Rufus DeVane King — for fifteen years.

The close relationship between Buchanan and King raised eyebrows even in their own time.  Contemporaries referred to them as “Siamese twins”.  Andrew Jackson called Buchanan and King “Aunt Fancy” and “Miss Nancy” respectively.  President Polk’s law partner, Aaron Brown, went further, referring to King as “Mr. Buchanan’s wife”.  The relationship between Buchanan and King was interrupted from time-to-time by each man’s foreign service (Buchanan as Minister to Russia during Jackson’s Presidency; King as Minister to France during Polk’s).

Unfortunately, the long letters that Buchanan and King wrote to each other throughout their lives are unable to explain their close relationship.  After each man’s death, their nieces burned almost all of their correspondence with one another.

There are hints which further the mystery in the few pieces of correspondence between the two men that have survived.  In 1844, President Tyler appointed King as the Minister to France and King wrote to Buchanan, “I am selfish enough to hope you will not be able to procure an associate who will cause you to feel no regret at our separation.  For myself, I shall feel lonely in the midst of Paris, for here I shall have no Friend with whom I can commune as with my own thoughts.

With King in Paris, Buchanan wrote an equally curious letter to a female friend of his in Washington, “I am now solitary and alone, having no companion in the house with me.  I have gone a-wooing to several gentlemen, but have not succeeded with any one of them.  I feel that it is not good for man to be alone; and should not be astonished to find myself married to some old maid who can nurse me when I am sick, provide good dinners for me when I am well, and not expect from me any very ardent or romantic affection.

Whether or not Buchanan and King were truly homosexual will likely never be known.  This much is true:  In 1852, King was elected Vice President and died of tuberculosis in April 1853, 45 days after his inauguration.  In 1856, Buchanan was elected President and served one term while his adopted niece, Harriet Lane, performed the duties of official White House hostess. 

To this day, Buchanan and King are the only lifelong bachelors to ever serve as President or Vice President.

I am the last President of the United States!
James Buchanan, upon the secession of South Carolina, December 20, 1860
Asker Anonymous Asks:
Hello Anthony! This is a two-part question, and one is personal, so I am very sorry if you take offense to the personal nature of it. First, what is your sexual orientation? Second, on that note, I recently read that there seems to be debate on the sexual orientation of James Buchanan. Do you think it is valid? Also, what were political attitudes toward sodomy/homosexuality back then? Did people just ignore it or did actual elected officials talk about "Sodomites"?
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

Hello to you, too!  I don’t take offense to personal questions, so no worries.

1.  I am heterosexual.

2.  With James Buchanan, we will never know for sure whether he was or was not a homosexual.  He burned any letters that would have helped shed some light on the issue and while we can speculate all that we want, it’s impossible and perhaps even unfair to out somebody or make a decision on somebody’s sexual identity when they’ve been dead for over 140 years.  During Buchanan’s time, there was definitely not any public statements by other politicians or journalists about his sexuality, but gossip was alive and well in the 19th Century and it was whispered about, particularly when it came to Buchanan’s close relationship with William Rufus DeVane King, who briefly served as Vice President under Buchanan’s predecessor, Franklin Pierce, but died in office after a few weeks.

People have asked me about Buchanan’s sexuality many times, so I’m going to paste what I’ve written in the past that was more in-depth:

First of all, this is all going to be speculation, so take my opinion about this subject very lightly. Secondly, please understand that I am socially liberal, so I don’t care whether or not a President is gay or straight as long as he or she can do the job.

It is very difficult to say that this President or that President was gay or not without simply guessing or making baseless accusations. My personal opinion is that it’s not our business to say that someone is or is not gay unless they choose to address it and make it our business.

It’s even more difficult to go back through history and say “so-and-so was obviously a homosexual because ___________”. I mean, let’s be honest, the first five Presidents wore knee breeches, buckled shoes, and powdered wigs, so we’d already be overloaded with suspicion right there.

Without going too far and becoming gossipy and National Enquirer-ish, I will point out the evidence which some believe strongly suggests that James Buchanan, the 15th President of the United States, was homosexual.

Buchanan was a lifelong bachelor — the only President to never marry. Early in life, he had been engaged to Ann Coleman, the daughter of a wealthy Pennsylvania manufacturer who began worrying about rumors that Buchanan was marrying her for her money. After a difficult period in their relationship, Coleman broke off the engagement in 1819 and died shortly thereafter, likely by suicide. Buchanan was devastated by Coleman’s death and was shunned by Coleman’s family who blamed him for Ann’s demise. At that time, Buchanan vowed to never marry and he retained Ann Coleman’s letters for the remainder of his life.

It is possible that Buchanan was so devastated by the death of his first love that he couldn’t imagine spending his life with another woman. However, that doesn’t explain why he spent so much of his life with another man.

In 19th Century Washington, D.C., it was not unusual for Members of Congress to room together in boarding houses while Congress was in session. Many political deals were debated and decided in Washington’s boarding houses which were set up to appeal to a Congressman’s need for prepared meals and affordable housing. Buchanan, however, was a fairly wealthy man for his age and time period. The affordable housing that resulted from taking on a roommate wasn’t a necessity for Buchanan. It was a choice. And, instead of living with a variety of different colleagues over the years, Buchanan lived with one — Alabama Senator William Rufus DeVane King — for fifteen years.

The close relationship between Buchanan and King raised eyebrows even in their own time. Contemporaries referred to them as “Siamese twins”. Andrew Jackson called Buchanan and King “Aunt Fancy” and “Miss Nancy” respectively. President Polk’s law partner, Aaron Brown, went further, referring to King as “Mr. Buchanan’s wife”. The relationship between Buchanan and King was interrupted from time-to-time by each man’s foreign service (Buchanan as Minister to Russia during Jackson’s Presidency; King as Minister to France during Polk’s).

Unfortunately, the long letters that Buchanan and King wrote to each other throughout their lives are unable to explain their close relationship. After each man’s death, their nieces burned almost all of their correspondence with one another.

There are hints which further the mystery in the few pieces of correspondence between the two men that have survived. In 1844, President Tyler appointed King as the Minister to France and King wrote to Buchanan, “I am selfish enough to hope you will not be able to procure an associate who will cause you to feel no regret at our separation. For myself, I shall feel lonely in the midst of Paris, for here I shall have no Friend with whom I can commune as with my own thoughts.”

With King in Paris, Buchanan wrote an equally curious letter to a female friend of his in Washington, “I am now solitary and alone, having no companion in the house with me. I have gone a-wooing to several gentlemen, but have not succeeded with any one of them. I feel that it is not good for man to be alone; and should not be astonished to find myself married to some old maid who can nurse me when I am sick, provide good dinners for me when I am well, and not expect from me any very ardent or romantic affection.”

Whether or not Buchanan and King were truly homosexual will likely never be known. This much is true: In 1852, King was elected Vice President and died of tuberculosis in April 1853, 45 days after his inauguration. In 1856, Buchanan was elected President and served one term while his adopted niece, Harriet Lane, performed the duties of official White House hostess.

To this day, Buchanan and King are the only lifelong bachelors to ever serve as President or Vice President.

I love the noise of democracy.
James Buchanan
Asker Anonymous Asks:
Some bad presidents are said to have been good candidates who were in the right place at the wrong time, but is there any president you'd say was just simply not suited for the office?
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

Absolutely.  Some of the most highly-qualified Presidents — men who seemed far more experienced and ready for the job than others — just weren’t suited to be chief executive.  No matter how impressive the resume is, sometimes the job simply doesn’t fit the man (and vice versa).

The best examples of exceptionally well-prepared and extremely qualified politicians who never got the hang of the Presidency would be (along with their resumes prior to becoming President):

•John Quincy Adams: One of the most brilliant and naturally gifted politicians in U.S. history; Served in diplomatic posts in Russia, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Prussia by the time he was 40 years old; Massachusetts State Senator; U.S. Senator; head of the delegation which negotiated the Treaty of Ghent and ended the War of 1812; spent 8 years as President Monroe’s Secretary of State and is widely-regarded as one of the greatest Secretaries of State in American history

•Martin Van Buren: Master politician at all levels except in the White House; New York State Senator; U.S. Senator; Governor of New York; Secretary of State under President Jackson; Vice President of the United States under President Jackson

•James Buchanan: Possibly the most experienced politician to be elected President; Member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives; Five-term member of the U.S. House of Representatives; U.S. Minister to Russia; Elected to three terms in the U.S. Senate; Secretary of State under President Polk; U.S. Minister to Great Britain

•Andrew Johnson: An accidental President who succeeded Lincoln following his assassination; City Alderman and Mayor of Greeneville, Tennessee; Member of the Tennessee House of Representatives; Tennessee State Senator; Member of the U.S. House of Representatives for five terms; Governor of Tennessee; U.S. Senator (only Southern Senator to remain loyal to the Union during the Civil War); Military Governor of Tennessee; Vice President of the United States under President Lincoln

•William Howard Taft: Better suited for the judiciary than the Presidency and eventually landed his dream job as Chief Justice of the United States; Local governmental official in Hamilton County, Ohio/Cincinnati, Ohio; Judge of the Cincinnati Superior Court; United States Solicitor General; Judge of the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court and Court of Appeals; Dean of the University of Cincinnati Law School; Military Commissioner of the Philippines; Governor-General of the Philippines; Secretary of War under President Theodore Roosevelt; Acting Secretary of State under President Roosevelt; Provisional Governor of Cuba; Reluctantly turned down three nominations to the Supreme Court prior to being elected President

Interestingly, all of these leaders who weren’t quite Presidential material continued to have active (and often more successful) careers following their Presidencies (with the exception of Buchanan who was nearly 70 years old upon leaving office). Adams spent 17 years in the U.S. House of Representatives; Van Buren ran for President two more times and remained a Democratic power broker; Johnson was elected to the U.S. Senate; and Taft finally got his chance to accept a spot on the Supreme Court and spent the last 9 years of his life as the Chief Justice of the United States.

Mr. Buchanan is an able man, but is in small matters without judgment and sometimes acts like an old maid.

James K. Polk, on his Secretary of State (and future President) James Buchanan, personal diary entry, February 27, 1848