James Buchanan: The American Presidents Series: The 15th President, 1857-1861

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Elegantly written, Baker's volume offers a balanced look at a crucial moment in our nation's history and explores an American president who, when given the opportunity, failed to rise to the challenge.

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Sep 15, 2018

James Buchanan In The American Presidents Series

About three miles north of the White House in Washington, D.C. there is a beautiful park known as Meridian Hill Park. Among other things, the park features a large memorial to the 15th president of the United States, James Buchanan. The Memorial was approved by Congress in 1918 but not built until 1930 after substantial controversy. The memorial is composed of bronze and granite with Buchanan at the center an the inscription "The incorruptible statesman whose walk was upon the mountain ranges of the law".

I visited the park and the Buchanan Memorial a few months ago and was reminded of my visit in reading Jean Baker's book "James Buchanan" (2004) written as part of the American Presidents Series of brief but substantial biographies of each American president. Baker, a professor of history at Goucher College, has written extensively on American history. Although short and written for non-specialists, her book on Buchanan is thoughtful indeed and helps the reader understand his failed presidency.

The Pennsylvanian James Buchanan (1791 -- 1868) served as the 15th president from 1857-1861 immediately prior to the Civil War. Buchanan came to the presidency after a long career in public life, including terms in the House and the Senate, and service as Secretary of State and as Minister to Russia and to Great Britain. Buchanan was the only bachelor president and rumors during his lifetime up to the present have abounded regarding his sexual orientation.

With his devotion to the country and his extensive experience, historians have tried to understand why Buchanan's presidency failed. Baker shares the widely accepted view that his presidency was a failure and expands upon the reasons for the failure. Many historians have attributed the failure to Buchanan's advanced age and to his vacillations as president and the attendant inability to take a strong position on pressing issues involving the preservation of the Union. Baker disagrees. She finds the source of Buchanan's failure in his strong sympathies for the South which he developed from his earliest years in public service. During his presidency, Baker argues, Buchanan worked vigorously and aggressively to promote southern interests. She points to his meddling in the Supreme Court on the Dred Scott decision, to his support for the pro-slavery Lecompton faction in Kansas, and most importantly, to his inactivity and attempted support for the South during the three-month period between Lincoln's election and his assumption of the presidency. Baker argues that some of Buchanan's actions during this period led him "closer to committing treason than any other president in American history." (p.142) Baker goes further and also attributes Buchanan's failure to the arrogance he developed during his long public career and to his tendency to demonize his political opponents, especially the Republican Party. She finds Buchanan's southern sympathies and the loneliness resulting from his bachelor life led his to rely too closely on the southern members of his cabinet who worked behind Buchanan's back with the southern rebels and led the president astray.

Baker's book combines a close study of the Buchanan presidency with her own analysis and conclusions about why the presidency failed. The book increased my understanding of Buchanan, the presidency, and the Civil War era.

Baker's book does not mention the Buchanan Memorial in Meridian Hill Park with which this review began. Congress had serious doubts before finally authorizing and constructing the Memorial. After reading Baker's book and being largely convinced by her discussion, I thought again about the Buchanan Memorial and about my visit earlier this year. The Memorial commemorates a failed presidency but a president who thought he was acting in the interests of the country and a patriot. He served at a pivotal moment in American history. The Buchanan Memorial is a tribute to the breadth and continuity of American experience and of the presidency which is part of the experience. Buchanan was a leader of our country and tried to serve it under his lights even though he is regarded, with great justification, as grievously wrong. He has his place here. As a servant of our country and as showing part of its character as it has evolved, Buchanan deserves his monument as well as the trenchant historical criticism of Baker and other scholars.

Robin Friedman

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