It’s Presidents’ Day, 2021. Originally designated a federal holiday to celebrate George Washington’s birthday, and later expanded to cover both Washington and Abraham Lincoln, who also was born in February, the holiday is now supposed to be a day to celebrate all U.S. presidents. Still, people mostly use it to celebrate George and Abe and the other great Presidents of American history.
But we’ve just come out of one of the worst years we’ve had in a while, and 2021 hasn’t exactly been gangbusters, either. So let’s acknowledge the current sour mood and use this Presidents’ Day to recognize one of the worst U.S. Presidents ever: James J. Buchanan. Historians may disagree somewhat about precisely who is the best U.S. President, or the absolute worst, but there is surprising unanimity about Buchanan. Everyone thinks this guy was a disaster.
Buchanan had an impressive resume when he was elected in 1856, having served in Congress, as Secretary of State, and as U.S. minister to Great Britain. But the 1850s were deeply troubled times in America, as the country was being pulled apart by slavery. Buchanan immediately provided evidence that he wasn’t up to the task of dealing with the issue in his inaugural address, when he amazingly stated that the issue of slavery in the territories was “happily, a matter of but little practical importance.” With constant bloody fighting between pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces in Kansas and western Missouri, Buchanan managed to stake out a position that absolutely no one on either side agreed with.
Buchanan is reputed to have influenced the Supreme Court’s infamous Dred Scott decision, which was issued shortly after his inauguration, and he thought it would put the slavery issue to rest — when instead it served only to further inflame abolitionist forces and spur people like Abraham Lincoln to reengage with national politics. But Buchanan didn’t stop there. He rarely spoke or appeared in public, and did nothing to try to bring the country together as it was spinning apart. Even worse, when Abraham Lincoln’s election caused southern states to begin seceding from the Union, the Buchanan Administration — which was heavily populated with pro-slavery Southerners — allowed the seceding states to seize federal forts and stockpiles that helped the Confederacy arm itself for the coming Civil War. Buchanan threw up his hands at the action of the southern states, and stated: “As sovereign States, they, and they alone, are responsible before God and the world for the slavery existing among them. For this the people of the North are not more responsible and have no more fight to interfere than with similar institutions in Russia or in Brazil.”
Even more bizarrely, Buchanan thought the President had no real role to play in the great issue of the day. He said: “It is beyond the power of any president, no matter what may be his own political proclivities, to restore peace and harmony among the states. Wisely limited and restrained as is his power under our Constitution and laws, he alone can accomplish but little for good or for evil on such a momentous question.” When Abraham Lincoln finally took office, states had seceded, treasonous activities had gone unpunished, and James J. Buchanan had done nothing about any of it. Having brought the country to the brink of disaster and disunion while refusing to use the bully pulpit of the presidency to address the moral scourge of slavery, Buchanan sought to excuse his inaction. Fortunately, Lincoln was no Buchanan. If he had been, the world would be a much different place.
It’s hard to imagine that we could ever have a worse President than James Buchanan — one more inept or ill-equipped to deal with the compelling issues of the day. Let’s hope we never find out.