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
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.”
Tyler is a political sectarian, of the slave-driving, Virginian, Jeffersonian school, principled against all improvement, with all the interests and passions and vices of slavery rooted in his moral and political constitution — with talents not above mediocrity, and a spirit incapable of expansion to the dimensions of the station upon which he has been cast by the hand of Providence.
John Quincy Adams, on John Tyler, shortly after Tyler had assumed the Presidency following the death of William Henry Harrison, 1841
Harrison didn’t accomplish a thing during the month he was in office. He made no contribution whatsoever. He had no policy. He didn’t know what the government was about, to tell the truth. About the only thing he did during that brief period was see friends and friends of friends, because he was such an easy mark that he couldn’t say no to anybody, and everybody and his brother was beseeching him for jobs.
Harry Truman, on the lack of accomplishments during the brief, one-month-long Presidency of William Henry Harrison
How could I have witnessed this without an unbecoming burst of indignation or of laughter? John Tyler is a slave-monger. With the association of the thundering cannon, which I heard, and the smoke of burning Charlestown, which I saw on that awful day, combined with this pyramid with Quincy granite and John Tyler’s nose, with a shadow outstretching that of the monumental column, I stayed at home and visited my seedling trees and heard the cannonades, rather than watch the President at dinner in Faneuil Hall swill like swine and grunt about the rights of man.
John Quincy Adams, on his thoughts on the irony and hypocrisy of slave-owning President John Tyler visiting JQA’s home state of Massachusetts to commemorate the Bunker Hill monument
Polk’s appointments all-in-all are the most damnable set that was ever made by any President since the government was organized…He has a set of interested parasites about him, who flatter him until he does not know himself. He seems to be acting upon the principle of hanging an old friend for the purpose of making two new ones…There is one things I will say…I never betrayed a friend or [was] guilty of the black sin of ingratitude. I fear Mr. Polk cannot say as much.
Andrew Johnson, on James K. Polk, who was a fellow Tennessee Democrat