The unforgettably forgettable president: A look at Mr. Buchanan

By Hailey Philbin
Three political ribbons with red, yellow, and blue colors, all showing illustrations of James Buchanan

James Buchanan. Do you recognize this name? According to TIME magazine’s “Top 10 Forgettable Presidents,” you probably don’t. Chances are, if you do recognize it, you remember Buchanan as one of the worst leaders to live in the White House. And, as he ranks number 43 in at least one recent survey of presidential greatness, your memory would serve you well.

Three political ribbons with red, yellow, and blue colors, all showing illustrations of James Buchanan
James Buchanan campaign ribbons

James Buchanan’s resume was impressive. On paper, Buchanan appeared more prepared than most for the presidency, serving as President Andrew Jackson’s Minister to Russia, as President James Polk’s Secretary of State, as ambassador to the United Kingdom under President Franklin Pierce, and as a member of the House of Representatives and of the Senate (winning multiple reelections). This raises the question: Why then was his administration so bad and forgettable? Fortunately, our political history collections contain a number of recently cataloged objects and prints that shed light on our 15th president’s career.

Page of newspaper showing an illustration of James Buchanan and an illustration of his wooded Pennsylvania home
“Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing Room Companion” depicts the smartly dressed Buchanan and his tree-covered residence in Wheatland, Pennsylvania.

With the nation on the verge of a civil war, the only Pennsylvanian president swore the oath of office on March 4, 1857. As a slavery sympathizer, Buchanan made critical mistakes that historians often cite as complacency in the instigation of the Civil War. Decided two days after his inauguration, the Dred Scott v. Sandford Supreme Court case ruled that “a negro, whose ancestors were imported into [the U.S.] and sold as slaves” was not considered American citizens and therefore had no legal standing. The newly inaugurated president supported this ruling alongside many anti-abolitionists.

Page of newspaper with various illustrations: paired drawing of James Buchanan and George Washington, Washington inauguration, and Mount Vernon
The newspaper clipping equates the president-elect and his vice president to the first presidential pair of George Washington and John Adams. Depicting scenes of the first inauguration in 1789 on the balcony of Federal Hall, Washington’s Potomac Oasis in Mount Vernon, Buchanan’s 1857 swearing-in on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, and his Pennsylvanian farm home, “Harper’s Weekly” was the first and last to connect the first president to the 15th one.

In 1854 the Kansas-Nebraska Act allowed popular sovereignty of the citizens of a territory to determine if theirs should be a slave or free state. Buchanan once again fatally allied with the South and supported the admission of Kansas as a slave state to expedite the official state-making process of the territory. Passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act proved to abolitionists that the country, and its new territories, were not headed toward an end to slavery. The act served as further validation to Southern slave owners and only increased the bitter tension between the North and the South. “Bleeding Kansas” further wounded the abolitionists’ campaign with the administration’s Southern sympathies.

Complex political cartoon featuring James Buchanan beating John Breckinridge, enslaved peoples, and enslavers.
As a wild-haired James Buchanan beats John Breckinridge with a cane, a town burns and a ship sits in the Gulf of Mexico. Two enslaved Africans chained to a flag ask, “Is this Democracy?” The answer: “We will subdue you!”

Buchanan’s decision to side with slaveholding interests wasn’t the only strike against his presidency. The Panic of 1857 struck in the beginning of Buchanan’s time in office, leading the country into a financial crisis in addition to the morality crisis of the slavery question.

As Buchanan’s presidency continued into its fourth and final year, tensions in the Southern states were at an all-time high. States began to threaten secession and Buchanan woefully responded in his final message to Congress: “the injured States, after having first used all peaceful and constitutional means to obtain redress, would be justified in revolutionary resistance to the Government of the Union.” The president’s only plan was to create an amendment that reaffirmed the constitutionality of slavery. The Northern states responded with fierce criticism and South Carolina seceded the Union on December 20, 1860.

Illustration showing the figure of COlumbia presiding over a raucous meeting
With a copy of the Constitution of the United States in hand, Mistress Columbia straddles the Mason-Dixon Line and attempts to create decorum among her divided scholars. The Southern scholars search in their copies of the founding document for any excuse to leave the Union while the Northern scholars have their noses buried in their research. “Harper’s Weekly” depicts the disunion among party and regional lines as America finally realizes the unceasing divisiveness.

By the end of his presidency, Buchanan’s only fans may have been in Minnesota, Oregon, and Kansas, as these states were admitted to the Union during his stay in office. Labeled a traitor by his fiercest enemies, the retired Buchanan received daily death threats and crude letters criticizing him for his role in Southern secession. As the Union and the Confederate forces were battling bayonet to bayonet, Buchanan was fighting his own personal, pity war of defense that some referred to as “Buchanan’s War.” In 1866 he composed his memoir, The Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion, to defend his policies against his critics. Its preface reads:

The authorities cited in the work will show that Mr. Buchanan never failed, upon all suitable occasions, to warn his countrymen of the approaching danger, and to advise them of the proper means to avert it. Both before and after he became President he was an earnest advocate of compromise between the parties to save the Union, but Congress disregarded his recommendations.

If the preface is any indication, it appears that James Buchanan suspected that he would be judged as a less than competent historical figure. He hoped he could persuade posterity to rank him higher than his contemporary Americans had. Perhaps Buchanan’s failures are remembered so harshly because they are juxtaposed with the heroic acts and eloquent voice of his successor: Abraham Lincoln. Is Buchanan remembered for being such a bad president because one of the most effective presidents was the next tenant of his political home? Is the 15th president often forgotten because everyone remembers the 16th so much more?

It is difficult to say exactly how Buchanan would defend himself today. At the very least, he would likely hope the average American would recognize him. So, for the 15th president’s sake, I’ll remind you once more of his name: James Buchanan.

Hailey Philbin is a former intern in the Division of Political and Military History.