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 "President 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:
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
I love the noise of democracy.
James Buchanan

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

I love the noise of democracy.

James Buchanan

In my opinion, yes, by any way you look at it.  If you look at all of the Presidents, including William Henry Harrison, who only spent a month in office, Buchanan was still the worst because Harrison didn’t do anything harmful to the country in his 31-day Presidency.  He didn’t really have a chance to do anything at all.  
Buchanan had four years in office and the country was crumbling around him while he did nothing. I would have more respect for President Buchanan if he would have tried something and made some sort of stand against secession.  It’s a good thing that secession didn’t start until the final months of Buchanan’s Administration because if it had taken place in 1859 who knows how conciliatory Buchanan would have been towards the seceded states.  Had secession happened earlier, the wishy-washy, ineffectual President might have recognized the Confederacy.
Also, with the sectional crisis, secession, and threat of Civil War, most people aren’t aware of the fact that the Panic of 1857, just five months after Buchanan was inaugurated, triggered a brutal economic depression that continued throughout the rest of Buchanan’s term and was inherited by Abraham Lincoln.  That means that, on top of everything else the nation was going through during Buchanan’s Administration, the country was also mired in an economic depression.
And if you know anything about what James Buchanan did (or, I guess I should say, DIDN’T do) as states began to secede from the Union, you probably can make a very good guess about what President Buchanan did to combat the economic depression triggered by the Panic of 1857.  Did he speak out in an attempt to shore up confidence in the nation’s finances?  Well, no, not that.  Did he try to temper the domino effect caused by a run on banks?  Not quite.  Did he work with his Treasury Secretary to clear up some of the murky banking laws causing trouble throughout the country?  No…his Treasury Secretary, Howell Cobb, was busy being one of the leading voices for secession and Founding Fathers of the Confederacy, which nearly elected Cobb as their President instead of Jefferson Davis.  
So, what did President Buchanan do in response to the Panic of 1857 and the economic depression of 1857, 1858, 1859, 1860, and 1861?  The exact same thing that President Buchanan did in response to the threat of secession, the actual secession of states from the Union, and the seizure of federal property (including military installations and weapons caches) by insurrectionists as states began to secede:  NOTHING.
That’s why James Buchanan is the worst President in our history.  Not because he had the misfortune to hold office at a tumultuous, troublesome time in our nation’s history, but because he did absolutely nothing to respond to those troubles. 

In my opinion, yes, by any way you look at it.  If you look at all of the Presidents, including William Henry Harrison, who only spent a month in office, Buchanan was still the worst because Harrison didn’t do anything harmful to the country in his 31-day Presidency.  He didn’t really have a chance to do anything at all.  

Buchanan had four years in office and the country was crumbling around him while he did nothing. I would have more respect for President Buchanan if he would have tried something and made some sort of stand against secession.  It’s a good thing that secession didn’t start until the final months of Buchanan’s Administration because if it had taken place in 1859 who knows how conciliatory Buchanan would have been towards the seceded states.  Had secession happened earlier, the wishy-washy, ineffectual President might have recognized the Confederacy.

Also, with the sectional crisis, secession, and threat of Civil War, most people aren’t aware of the fact that the Panic of 1857, just five months after Buchanan was inaugurated, triggered a brutal economic depression that continued throughout the rest of Buchanan’s term and was inherited by Abraham Lincoln.  That means that, on top of everything else the nation was going through during Buchanan’s Administration, the country was also mired in an economic depression.

And if you know anything about what James Buchanan did (or, I guess I should say, DIDN’T do) as states began to secede from the Union, you probably can make a very good guess about what President Buchanan did to combat the economic depression triggered by the Panic of 1857.  Did he speak out in an attempt to shore up confidence in the nation’s finances?  Well, no, not that.  Did he try to temper the domino effect caused by a run on banks?  Not quite.  Did he work with his Treasury Secretary to clear up some of the murky banking laws causing trouble throughout the country?  No…his Treasury Secretary, Howell Cobb, was busy being one of the leading voices for secession and Founding Fathers of the Confederacy, which nearly elected Cobb as their President instead of Jefferson Davis.  

So, what did President Buchanan do in response to the Panic of 1857 and the economic depression of 1857, 1858, 1859, 1860, and 1861?  The exact same thing that President Buchanan did in response to the threat of secession, the actual secession of states from the Union, and the seizure of federal property (including military installations and weapons caches) by insurrectionists as states began to secede:  NOTHING.

That’s why James Buchanan is the worst President in our history.  Not because he had the misfortune to hold office at a tumultuous, troublesome time in our nation’s history, but because he did absolutely nothing to respond to those troubles. 

In researching some Presidential trivia, a friend mentioned that Buchanan never married because he was gay. Not that it matters at all, but now I'm curious if it's true.
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

You’re right, it doesn’t matter whether or not President Buchanan was gay, but for the historical record, we’d love to have a definitive answer.  Unfortunately, that’s never going to happen.  So, we have to use the evidence that we have and make our own personal conclusions.

I’ve answered this question in-depth before, so I’m just going to copy and paste that answer.  Since this a question that is asked frequently and a genuine mystery to historians, I, like many other historians, have looked at Buchanan’s life and have a personal opinion on the question. Personally, yes, I do think that James Buchanan was a homosexual.  Still, Buchanan has been dead for almost 145 years and contemporary opinions will always be speculation.  Here’s what I’ve previously written when asked about President Buchanan’s sexuality:

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.