Some of the Presidents were great and some of them weren’t. I can say that because I wasn’t one of the great Presidents; but, I had a good time trying to be one.
Harry S Truman, April 27, 1959
Few people, with the possible exception of his wife, will ever tell a President that he is a fool.
Gerald Ford, A Time To Heal
That speech he made out there was better than anything Franklin Roosevelt said at his best — it was better than Lincoln. I think — really think — that he is a man of destiny.
Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, on John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961
It is absurd to call him [Abraham Lincoln] a modest man. No great man was ever modest.
John Hay, Abraham Lincoln’s private secretary, to William H. Herndon, Lincoln’s former law partner
Did you ever think that making a speech on economics is a lot like pissing down your leg? It seems hot to you, but it never does to anyone else.
Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) to economist John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006)
Say to Mr. Lincoln from me that I shall at any time be pleased to receive proposals for peace on the basis of our [Confederate] Independence. It will be useless to approach me with any other.
Confederate President Jefferson Davis, to Northern emissaries during the Civil War, July 1864.
He was not executive in his talents — not original, not firm, not a moral force. He leaned on others — could not face a frowning world; his habits suffered from Washington life. His course at various times when trouble came betrayed weakness.
Rutherford B. Hayes, on his successor, James Garfield, 1883.
He has done more than any other President to degrade the character of Cabinet officers by choosing them on the model of the military staff, because of their pleasant personal relation to him and not because of their national reputation and the public needs…His imperturbability is amazing. I am in doubt whether to call it greatness or stupidity.
James Garfield, criticizing Ulysses S. Grant for his poor judgment of the quality of many of the officials of his Administration which was ravaged by scandals despite President Grant’s personal honesty and lack of complicity, 1874.
The next man…was ‘Ole Rough ‘n’ Ready,’ old Zack Taylor, the hero of Buena Vista, and he was another of those damn fool generals that didn’t know anything about politics, nothing at all in any way, shape or form, and so Daniel Webster, who was Secretary of State, and Henry Clay ran things, and after sixteen months in office, on July 4, 1850, he went to an Independence Day celebration, and they say he ate too much watermelon and died.
Harry Truman, on Zachary Taylor, giving his candid opinion on some of his Presidential predecessors, to Merle Miller
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
You know my private opinion of Mr. Adams: Talents, virtues, and integrity, and I am free to declare that I have never changed this opinion of Mr. Adams since it was first formed, I think him a man of the first rate mind of any in America as a civilian and scholar, and I have never doubted of his attachment to our republican Government…[I am] at liberty to say in my name both to my friends and enemies — that I will as far as my influence extends support Mr. Adams unless Mr. Calhoun should be brought forward.
Andrew Jackson, stating that he would commit to supporting John Quincy Adams for President in 1824 unless John C. Calhoun entered the race, in a personal letter to James Gadsden, December 6, 1821.
Jackson himself would run for President in 1824 in a four-way race against Adams, William H. Crawford, and Henry Clay, and become embroiled in a feud with Adams (and Clay) for the rest of their lives because he believed Adams and Clay colluded in a “Corrupt Bargain” to swing the election in Adams’s favor. Calhoun would later serve as Vice President under Adams and Jackson, and also find himself in a vicious feud with Old Hickory.
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