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Erik Visits an American Grave (III)

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This is the grave of James Buchanan.

2015-07-28 14.59.44

Buchanan was arguably the worst president in American history. A follower of Andrew Jackson, with all the commitment to white supremacy that entailed, Buchanan was president from 1857-1861, where he was a doughface’s doughface, running the nation to serve the interest of slaveholders. Before this he was Secretary of State under Polk, during the Mexican War, where they acted to steal half of Mexico in order to expand American slavery. In the 1850s, while serving as Ambassador to Great Britain under Pierce, he also helped create the Ostend Manifesto, which sought to acquire Cuba, also in order to expand slavery. Had this happened, ending slavery would have been more difficult because the sugar money far outstripped the wealth of the cotton planters. In the months before his presidency, Buchana worked with Roger Taney and other southerners on the Supreme Court to have the Missouri Compromise declared unconstitutional in the Dred Scott decision, as the judges were originally expected simply to find against the ex-slave on narrow grounds.

Buchanan as president was predictably awful on slavery. Despite initial promises over the idea of popular sovereignty in Kansas, when the slaveholders rammed through the Lecompton Constitution over the will of the people of Kansas that would have guaranteed slavery there, Buchanan offered his support and wanted to sign it. This led to a split between himself and Stephen Douglas, who had hoped to vault himself to the presidency on the idea of popular sovereignty and this helped lead to the split in the Democratic Party in 1860. He actually claimed that he hoped slavery could be limited and that he wouldn’t support acquiring more territory explicitly to expand slavery, but his actions belied these words. Buchanan was president when South Carolina led the succession movement after Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860. His response was to do effectively nothing. He gave a speech saying that secession was not legal but that the North was to blame. This just made everyone hate him. What’s worse, his own Secretary of War John Floyd started moving guns in American arsenals to the South in order to arm his home region, an act of abject treason. Finally, in late December Buchanan got rid of Floyd, as even Buchanan couldn’t deal with this behavior. During the Civil War, Buchanan was widely loathed and he spent the rest of his life defending himself from attacks.

James Buchanan is buried in the Woodward Hill Cemetery in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

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  • rea

    The man had bad taste in boyfriends, too.

  • joe from Lowell

    Buchanan was arguably the worst president in American history.

    It was Polk who let in all the Irish.

  • Marc

    Worst president? I think that Bush the lesser has a strong claim to that title.

    • No way. He might be bottom 5, but there is no way he is worse than the Pierce/Buchanan/Andrew Johnson trifecta.

      • Marc

        The Iraq Wat was a gigantic disaster, his role in the economic collapse was significant, and Katrina. Those are all pretty massive negatives.

        • The Temporary Name

          He didn’t set the stage for destroying the country, but chalk that one up to incompetence.

      • Murc

        Bottom five is solidly Bush the Lesser, Nixon, Pierce, Buchanan, Andrew Johnson.

        There is perhaps argument for replacing either Bush or Nixon. But the other three, yeah, hard to get worse.

        • Brett

          Honestly, I think the negatives of Woodrow Wilson outweigh his positives to the point where he deserves to replace Bush the Lesser on that list. Bush the Lesser got us into the Iraq War clusterfuck, but Woodrow Wilson openly got the US into World War I after using “he kept us out of war” as a 1916 election campaign promise. And that was after covertly aiding the British for a while, baiting German U-boat attacks in the process.

          Nixon doesn’t belong. He was a shitty person, but Andrew Jackson was both a shitty person and much more damaging to the 19th century US than Nixon was to the 20th century US.

          • Rob in CT

            I think Nixon’s ranking probably depends on whether you believe he deliberately sabotaged peace negotiations to get elected (and believing that his sabotage is all that prevented peace at the time). Also, price controls, really?

            But yeah, I’m not really sure he’s bottom 5. For me:

            Pierce, Buchanan, Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson and maybe Bush the Lesser as 5th worst. And I could probably be convinced that neither Johnson nor Bush II belong.

            • postmodulator

              I think Nixon’s ranking probably depends on whether you believe he deliberately sabotaged peace negotiations to get elected

              Isn’t that explanation somewhat more likely than not, though? Unless he was actually thinking “Gosh, I’d hate to see the North Vietnamese take a deal that was bad for them.”

            • Murc

              I think Nixon’s ranking probably depends on whether you believe he deliberately sabotaged peace negotiations to get elected (and believing that his sabotage is all that prevented peace at the time)

              I rank Nixon so low based on the fact that he’s still fucking the country up despite being long dead. The Reagan and Bush II Presidencies can both be laid directly at his feet, as well as damn near every evil of the modern Republican Party; they weren’t saints before and Nixon basically held open the door and invited all their worst demons to come in and take over.

              We have not even reached the end of the damage that man caused, let alone started to undo it.

              And there’s no question of “believing” he sabotaged peace negotiations any more than I need to believe in the sky. It’s a thing that happened. Belief doesn’t need to enter into it.

              • sapient

                And there’s no question of “believing” he sabotaged peace negotiations any more than I need to believe in the sky. It’s a thing that happened. Belief doesn’t need to enter into it.

                Agreed. The new book One Man Against the World, by Tim Weiner substantiates that.

                Also, Nixon is the one who expanded the Vietnam war into Cambodia with secret bombings. There is apparently some accusation floating around that Johnson had done that, but I can’t find any verification for that. Some Canadian scholars stated that, but backed off on a lot of the bombing statistics contained in their original study of material that was declassified in 2000, It was because of Nixon that the US dropped more bombs in South East Asia than were dropped in all of WWII by anybody (including Hiroshima and Nagasaki). I definitely think that he wins the prize for evil.

                Oh, and the rest of what Murc said.

              • Rob in CT

                Hmm. I hear you, though I think you actually may be giving Nixon slightly too much credit (demerit, rather) for the Southern Strategy and all that (inviting in the demons). Goldwater laid the groundwork, no? LBJ & the Dems in congress largely showed the racists the door (yes, yes, Manju, I KNOW, leave it be) and there were a lot of racists, and those votes were up for grabs.

                As for the sabotage – I believe you (belief, because it’s a hole in my historical knowledge. I’m not stating that it’s a question of belief once one has looked into it. I simply haven’t).

                Of course, Reagan had Iran-Contra which is also not a question of belief, and there is the question of surrogates of his making sure the Iranians held the hostages until Carter was out of office (which sounds plausible, given Nixonian behavior in the GOP was normalized by then. Hmm, Nixonian behavior normalized… backs up your points on Nixon).

          • Manny Kant

            “He kept us out of war” sounds like a description more than a promise to me.

            As to Wilson more broadly, I’ll just say that he had significant and lasting legislative achievements (Clayton Act, Federal Reserve, Underwood Tariff, FTC, etc.), and that the decision to get into World War I seems considerably less bad to me. Wilson certainly didn’t practice a particularly impartial neutrality, but I don’t see how he covertly aided the British (perhaps you’re thinking of FDR?). He just traded (openly) with the British, while mostly not trading with Germany because of the British blockade.

            The Germans in 1917 absolutely knew that they were committing themselves to a war with the United States by resuming submarine warfare. They did it because they didn’t care, because they made a miscalculation and thought they could force Britain to surrender before American entry mattered. I’m not sure how any plausible president would have avoided war with Germany under those circumstances. Certainly Hughes would have done exactly the same thing as Wilson, and I have a hard time seeing how even a President Bryan could have avoided a war. Unrestricted submarine warfare was a de facto declaration of war against the United States. I don’t see how Wilson can be blamed for responding in kind.

            I also don’t think that American intervention in World War I was a disaster. Imperial Germany was a nasty state to begin with, and had gotten much, much nastier by 1917. Defeating it was a worthy cause, even if the Allies were themselves unpleasant in their own ways. The aftermath wasn’t handled well, but the peace settlement wasn’t actually all that bad. (It turned out badly, but that had very little to do with the peace terms themselves)

            Wilson obviously made some serious mistakes. He was a giant racist, he was awful on civil liberties, his stubbornness on Versailles guaranteed the US wouldn’t join the League. But he certainly isn’t nearly as bad as you’re making him out to be.

            • Wilson is also the most pro-labor president in American history before FDR.

              I read the charge against Wilson as basically being influential to neoconservatives. Which is not entirely fair.

              • Denverite

                I mean, he was probably the biggest racist elected president since Buchanan, right? (Johnson wasn’t elected.)

                • There’s plenty of competition for that title, such as it was, but probably, yes. On the other hand, every one of those presidents fell on the white supremacist spectrum.

                • EliHawk

                  I think Erik’s probably about right. If you look at the counting stats, Wilson’s probably most racist, but he’s got a pretty average RAR.

              • thebat137

                Haven’t seen anybody mention yet that Wilson also had a non-negligible role in getting the Nineteenth Amendment passed. I have the impression that it was somewhat of a cynical political calculation on his part, and more of the credit certainly belongs to the generations of women who often literally put their bodies on the line for their rights, but I’m still glad he did as much as he did there. From my perspective, the 19th takes him pretty cleanly off the bottom 5 list, all by itself.

                [First time commenter here, so perhaps this is a weird place to jump in, but what are you gonna do.]

            • postmodulator

              Unrestricted submarine warfare was a de facto declaration of war against the United States.

              This. I don’t know how you ignore attacks on US shipping even if you did “bait” Germany.

              • rea

                Not to mention the German deal with Mexico to give the Mexicans back the Southwest.

                • postmodulator

                  Which was probably never really serious — the Mexican conclusion was that Germany couldn’t help Mexico if they wanted to — but it’s not a good look.

            • J. Otto Pohl

              Imperial Germany was not really any nastier than any other European or even European populated settler colony for that matter. Their one genocide in Namibia killed far less people than those against indigenous peoples in the English speaking former colonies like the US and Australia. Internally Imperial Germany had fairly decent democracy and social legislation compared to its neighbors. It was certainly decades ahead of the Russian Empire on those matters. A state that engaged in what can only be described as genocide against the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz in 1916. In the colonies it was brutal, but except for the genocide in Namibia, no worse than the French or Portuguese. Even counting Namibia where there was a high percentage of deaths among the Hereo due to the Vernichtungsbefehl the absolute numbers pale in comparison to Belgium. The Germans murdered some 80,000 Hereo vs. perhaps 10 million Congolese killed by the Belgians. Yet nobody thought to force the Belgians out of Congo until the early 1960s.

              • Denverite

                Hey, Management, someone nymjacked Jotto and posted a comment without mentioning Ghana. Pls handle thx.

                • J. Otto Pohl

                  It is in there. Eastern Ghana was part of the German Togoland Protectorate, one of Germany’s colonies. Sometimes the references are more subtle.

                • witlesschum

                  Good one, Otto.

              • Manny Kant

                Germany certainly did not have fairly decent democracy, because the government was not responsible to parliament. And Prussia, the state where the majority of Germans lived, and whose state government had jurisdiction over most government functions, had a wildly undemocratic legislature with limited powers (to which the government was also not responsible).

                It was ahead of the Russian Empire, which no longer existed when the US declared war on Germany, but behind everyone else.

                And while every European power was terrible to non-European peoples who had the misfortune to come into contact with them, the Germans were, by 1917, in the process of creating a colonial empire in Europe itself. We shouldn’t dismiss the evils of the British Empire, but I don’t think we should ignore the distinct terribleness of the Second Reich.

                • J. Otto Pohl

                  I don’t think it was distinctly terrible. The Second Reich in Ukraine and the Baltics and even Poland was not notably worse than Tsarist rule and a lot better than the later Stalinist rule. But, why should Germany occupying Belgium be a greater moral crime than the Belgians working to death millions of Congolese? Really the only thing that sticks out about the evils of the Second Reich is the Hereo genocide in Namibia a decade before WWI and the Allied solution to that problem was to put them under South African rule.

              • ajay

                “There are too many Jews in my country. They want stamping out” – Kaiser Wilhelm to the British foreign secretary during his visit to London in 1909.

          • Marc

            Nixon really did commit a frontal assault on democracy. Directly using the FBI,CIA and IRS to hound political opponents is pretty far over the line, and his resignation in the face of almost certain conviction in a Senate trial does make him unique. His malignant role in everything from red-baiting to amplifying racial divisions also deserves mention. On the other side of the ledger, opening relations with China and defrosting them with the USSR were real achievements.

            • Murc

              Nixon doesn’t fucking get credit for opening relations with the PRC, because every single time anyone else tried to do so, Nixon was at the forefront of the pack of hyenas shrieking “COMMIE PINKO SYMPS!” at them.

              Giving Nixon credit for going to China is like giving an arsonist credit for putting out a fire they themselves started.

              • J. Otto Pohl

                I am pretty sure that none of the presidents and they are the ones that conduct US foreing policy before Nixon attempted to normalize relations with the PRC. Mao took power when Truman was president and the US sent the 7th Fleet to the Taiwan Straits to preserve Chaing’s rule on Taiwan. Later under Truman and Eisenhower the US fought a war against China in Korea. There was also the conflict between the US China under Eisenhower over Quemoy and Matsu. Under Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson the US supported Tibetan guerrillas against China. They also viewed Beijing not Moscow as North Vietnam’s ideological mentor and increasingly escalated US involvement in Vietnam and Laos. I don’t know of any plans by Johnson to normalize relations with the PRC and I am pretty sure there were none under Truman, Eisenhower, or Kennedy.

          • Edogg

            With Nixon you have the extensive bombing of Cambodia and not responding to the Bangladesh genocide.

            • Sev

              I believe he responded by continuing supply of arms to West Pakistan.

          • Scott P.

            Hmm. If I were to put Wilson on the bottom five, it’s because he waited until 1917 to get us into the war. Given the global threat German militarism turned out to be (on multiple occasions), it would have been far better, and less costly, to have come in earlier.

            • It’s not like Wilson could just bring us into war. There was no way Congress was going to support that in 1914. Maybe after the Lusitania, but quite likely not.

        • Lee Rudolph

          Clearly, American Exceptionalism dictates that there can—nay, must—be at least ten US Presidents in the bottom five!

        • wengler

          No Reagan?

          • Rob in CT

            Heh, I considered him!

            But I dunno about bottom 5. I think Dubya was worse. YMMV.

            I was a kid when Reagan was POTUS. Given this, I didn’t study anything he did in school and by the time I was politically aware he was history. I have decided that he was bad, but I don’t have a list of charges drawn up in my head, you know? I can come up with some, and make more general comments re: the trajectory of certain things, but it’s not like it is for some people who were adults at the time, or people studying 19th century Presidents. So it’s hard to rank just how bad he was.

            Dubya I lived through as an adult, and the experience really affected my political views. I may overrate his awfulness as a result.

            • Malaclypse

              Iran-Contra was really really bad, arguably worse than what Nixon did. Looting the military in order to sell advanced weaponry to an enemy state, in order to fund a war Congress has explicitly forbidden you to get involved in, and mixing in coke smuggling in order to go from mere villainy to cartoon supervillainy, is pretty far over the line.

            • EliHawk

              The one thing I always give Reagan credit for that places him above the absolute worst is his second term willingness to deal with Gorbachev on arms control and thawing down the Cold War–something that most of his biggest admirers and hard liners absolutely despised him for at the time.

              • Rob in CT

                Yes, me too.

    • Denverite

      With the benefit of hindsight, Bush was merely very bad. He actually tried to do a few good things (NCLB, 2008 bailout, proposed immigration policy).

      Though Buchanan did too — he signed the Colorado Territory Act to create the state, mostly to guarantee Union access to the minerals in the territory. (Coloradans will say also to make sure Colorado was a non-slave state in case Kansas flipped, but that’s ahistorical.)

      • wengler

        No, Bush was quite horrible. He lit a trillion dollars on fire, killed thousands of our people and millions overseas. For his grand finale, he made Obama and Congressional leaders make sure the global economy didn’t melt down. He’s a war criminal and a real piece of human garbage, much more than ‘merely very bad’.

        • Bruce Vail

          This.

        • Marek

          Harrumph.

          (And while not a war crime, in what sense was NCLB trying to do something good?)

        • Rob in CT

          He’s a war criminal and a real piece of human garbage, much more than ‘merely very bad’.

          I think the argument being made is not that the above isn’t true. It’s that the above is true and there were ~5 other US Presidents who managed to be worse.

          We’ve had some bad ‘uns.

          • Denverite

            Yes, this. Bush’s foreign policy was disastrous, though.

    • Sly

      George W. Bush was awful, but never during his tenure was the continued existence of the republic a question of serious debate to which his response was, at the most charitable, a glorified “Eh….”

      • Lurker

        At is because Bush’s reesponse would have been an enthusiastic “No!”

      • Marek

        I refer you to the arguments and decision in Bush v. Gore.

  • Warren Terra

    This really is working out to be the Viscount Castlereigh tour so far, isn’t it?

    • Sev

      I was intending to ask Eric if he remembered to dispense a bottle of Heinz 57.

  • To bring this back to yesterday’s Marvel discussion, ever since MCU fandom went nuts over Bucky Barnes (which is to say, over Steve/Bucky), I’ve been bothered by one question: why would you name your child after James Buchanan? Is this something we’re meant to read into, or was it just a case of a writer picking a president’s name out of a hat without knowing much about their history? (For that matter, when did Bucky Barnes become James Buchanan Barnes?)

    • Murc

      why would you name your child after James Buchanan?

      That’s a hell of an assumption. Why would he be named after James Buchanan? “James” and “Buchanan” are both incredibly common names. Maybe James is the name of Bucky’s grandfather and Buchanan was the name of his father, or his mother’s maiden name, or a beloved uncle, or any other reasons?

      • Given the context of a Captain America comic, it’s kind of hard to believe that choosing to name a character James Buchanan wasn’t intended as a reference to the president. Though again, that could depend on when the name was decided on – I don’t know if the original, child sidekick Bucky even had a proper name.

        • Murc

          They could have just named him Buchanan Barnes, I suppose. That shortens to Bucky just fine.

  • Lost Left Coaster

    I used to live in Washington, DC. One of DC’s strangest monuments is a statue of James Buchanan in the bottom section of Meridian Hill Park, known locally as Malcolm X Park, which is just a little bit up from Dupont Circle and close to Adams Morgan. Here are some good photos of the memorial on an old website. The photographer helpfully zoomed in on the inscription:

    THE INCORRUPTIBLE STATESMAN WHOSE
    WALK WAS UPON THE MOUNTAIN
    RANGES OF THE LAW

    • witlesschum

      Hard to say what other reasons there could be for putting that up other than preferring Buchanan’s approach to the Civil War to Lincoln’s or pure, mindless Pennsylvania boosterism.

      • Pat

        ???

  • prufrock

    Wow, I always knew he was on the top of most historians’ “worst presidents” lists, but I was willing to cut him a little slack because I felt that any president that served during that time would be left “holding the bag” when the south succeeded.

    After reading this, I’ve tightened up any slack I would have given him.

    • osceola

      Me, too. I thought Bush was worse because of his deliberate warmongering, and that Buchanan, like Pierce and Filmore, was just a mediocre schlub not up to the situation at hand.

      Erik really brought up the deliberate nature of his proslavery actions.

      • Manny Kant

        Fillmore was a mediocre schlub not up to the situation at hand. Pierce and Buchanan did explicitly terrible things that made sectional conflict much, much worse.

        Pierce, admittedly, was also a mediocre schlub. But his administration was actively awful in a way that Fillmore’s wasn’t.

        (Not that Fillmore was anything to write home about – the President who signed the Fugitive Slave Act deserves our contempt as well. But at least that was part of an apparently successful policy to reduce sectional tensions – it made sense in terms of what Fillmore was trying to do. Pierce and Buchanan’s policies were counter productive even in terms of their own goals)

        • Brett

          Pierce openly sympathized with the Confederacy in the American Civil War, IIRC.

          • Manny Kant

            Fillmore, on the other hand, was anti-Emancipation Unionist who hated Lincoln and backed McClellan in 1864. So, um, slightly better?

            Our ex-presidents during the Civil War were a pretty sorry spectacle. Remarkably, Van Buren appears to have been the least awful.

          • Murc

            I’ve always felt that any list of worst presidents needs a Dishonorable Mention spot for John Tyler, who was an okay president but holds the distinction of being the only U.S President to ever formally commit treason: he was part of the Confederate government.

            • Right–not to mention Tyler named John C. Calhoun Secretary of State, who then issued the Pakenham Letter, declaring slavery the formal policy of the U.S. Tyler decided that southern extremism was his best ticket to election. Worked out terribly for him, moved the nation significantly further on the path to Civil War.

              • Scott Lemieux

                Tyler was also the proto-Andrew Johnson: elected on a Whig ticket but governed essentially as a Democrat.

            • Brett

              Holy shit, I didn’t know that. I thought Pierce was the closest to an actual treasonous President, but then Tyler was an outright traitor.

              • Murc

                I have to admit that it is one of my favorite pieces of presidential trivia to drop on people. Even people who are otherwise neo-Confederate curious tend to squirm a little thinking that an actual former U.S President signed up with the Confederacy. It seems to really gall people more than random Senators and Congressmen doing so.

                It’s not enough by itself to drop Tyler into one of the really low spots, because it happened after his term in office, but “former President turns outright traitor” is just one of those things that I think deserves a special little place in any discussion of our worst leaders.

                • M31

                  Here’s my favorite piece of John Tyler trivia: he has two grandsons who are still alive.

                  No really.

                  (at least as of August of this year, according to Wikipedia)

                • Murc

                  Gross old men impregnating young women can lead to really, really long generation gaps if it happens in sequence. Strom Thurmond is quite likely to still have a living grandchild in 2050, for example, and if his son had followed the old man’s tradition of knocking up someone in his late sixties that could easily have extended out to 2100.

  • Snarki, child of Loki

    Good reporting, but I think that the pilgrimage should be from Gettysburg to the Buchanan tomb, for the purposes of pissing on it.

    • Templar

      Beat me to it. I’m in Lancaster fairly often. Maybe we can charter a bus from Philadelphia.

      • Phil Perspective

        The Amtrak train isn’t good enough?

        • Templar

          Can’t drink. Need to stock up prior to arrival so we don’t miss a spot.

  • Lev

    Is it true that the people who work at Buchanan’s home/museum actually apologize for how bad his presidency was? I’ve heard that, wonder if anyone can confirm?

    • My wife grew up 2 blocks from his house. She tells me everyone who worked there seemed very proud of having a president from Lancaster. But that’s probably in the job description. It is a nice house with a huge front yard, useful for ball games and frisbee.

      • ninja3000

        My parents live a couple blocks from Wheatland (my dad is a native who returned after retirement). It is a beautiful joint, to be sure. I get the impression that current residents simply don’t talk about Buchanan much at all. But Wheatland is definitely promoted as a tourist destination.

  • DrDick

    It is a testament to his awfulness that there are not monuments to him all over the South. Even his allies hated him.

  • Bitter Scribe

    Before this he was Secretary of State under Polk, during the Mexican War, where they acted to steal half of Mexico in order to expand American slavery.

    You’re not giving him quite enough credit. He did float a proposal at the beginning of the war for the U.S. to declare that it had no designs on Mexican territory. Polk told him to shut up, which he did.

  • Brett

    I always thought Andrew Johnson was the worst for the near-treasonous way he tried to give everything back to the South after the American Civil War, but you make a pretty convincing case. The way he sat on his ass and did nothing while secession happened is particularly unforgivable – say what you will about Andrew Jackson (an awful President in his own right), but when Calhoun & Friends threatened nullification in the 1830s he came down on them hard and shut it down.

    Speaking of Buchanan, wasn’t he the guy who was sent to Russia by Andrew Jackson simply to get him as far away as possible. I could have sworn Jackson said something like, “I would have sent him to the Moon if it were possible”.

    • Pat

      Like Washington’s assessment of Aaron Burr…

  • Manny Kant

    The Buchanan administration’s last months in office (after the southerners quit the cabinet and were replaced by unionists like Joseph Holt and Edwin Stanton) were actually much better than they might have been. It’s totally conceivable that Buchanan might have recognized the Confederacy, or at least abandoned all the federal installations in the seceding states.

  • Bruce Vail

    Buchanan was the worst president because he didn’t want civil war?

    That’s a twist that never occurred to me before…

    • Because he moved the ball ahead in creating the Civil War and because when it started, his response was to do nothing.

      • Bruce Vail

        Eh, I think all of you are too hard on Buchanan. He wanted to avoid a war, but he couldn’t find a way to do it.

        Seems most LGMers would agree with Lincoln that there was no way to avoid it in the end anyway, so why single out Buchanan for abuse?

        Seems to me presidents like McKinley, Johnson or Bush are worse, because they were able to choose between war and peace, and they chose war.

        • Rob in CT

          Because he: a) made things worse in the antebellum era; and b) his fiddling while the country came apart made it harder for the Union to win the war?

          I mean, those seem like good reasons to be hard on him.

          Johnson is an interesting case. He did enormously important things, for both good and ill.

          • Denverite

            Johnson is an interesting case. He did enormously important things, for both good and ill.

            Which Johnson?

            • Rob in CT

              LBJ.

              Seems to me presidents like McKinley, Johnson or Bush are worse, because they were able to choose between war and peace, and they chose war.

              He has to mean LBJ.

              • Denverite

                Probably, but Andrew Johnson was way worse than LBJ. Botching Reconstruction hurt a lot more people than did Vietnam. Well, a lot more Americans.

                • Rob in CT

                  Well, a lot more Americans.

                  Direct harm to ~4 million black Americans (and at least some whites too).

                  Versus… what, ~1 million dead Vietnamese, plus injured, plus damage to the country. We can allocate Cambodia & Laos to Nixon, but still. That’s horrible.

                  Thing is, LBJ had positive accomplishments. What were Andrew Johnsons?

          • Brett

            LBJ is probably the most “divided” President in terms of quality ever. If we were just rating him on his domestic accomplishments, he’d be in the Top Five Presidents of All Time.

            But then there’s his foreign policy . . . and from what I’ve read, that wasn’t just a case of Kennedy handing him a shit sandwich in Vietnam. His bad leadership and choice of advisers made the situation worse.

            • The Temporary Name

              He really believed in the cause in Vietnam unfortunately. The tapes are a sorrowful thing to hear.

    • Rob in CT

      Um, that’s not the charge.

      [hint: Lincoln didn’t want a Civil War either]

      • Bruce Vail

        Well, that’s my read on Erik’s indictment. What am I missing?

        • Rob in CT

          Holy shit. Did you read the post? It’s not long.

          Half of it has to do with things he did before he was Pres, granted. But those were bad, and laid the groundwork for what was to come.

          Particularly, say, this:

          In the months before his presidency, Buchana worked with Roger Taney and other southerners on the Supreme Court to have the Missouri Compromise declared unconstitutional in the Dred Scott decision, as the judges were originally expected simply to find against the ex-slave on narrow grounds.

          That’s a BFD.

          Then there is this:

          Buchanan as president was predictably awful on slavery. Despite initial promises over the idea of popular sovereignty in Kansas, when the slaveholders rammed through the Lecompton Constitution over the will of the people of Kansas that would have guaranteed slavery there, Buchanan offered his support and wanted to sign it. This led to a split between himself and Stephen Douglas, who had hoped to vault himself to the presidency on the idea of popular sovereignty and this helped lead to the split in the Democratic Party in 1860. He actually claimed that he hoped slavery could be limited and that he wouldn’t support acquiring more territory explicitly to expand slavery, but his actions belied these words. Buchanan was president when South Carolina led the succession movement after Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860. His response was to do effectively nothing. He gave a speech saying that secession was not legal but that the North was to blame. This just made everyone hate him. What’s worse, his own Secretary of War John Floyd started moving guns in American arsenals to the South in order to arm his home region, an act of abject treason.

          How you got “he didn’t want war so he sucks” from that is beyond me.

          • rea

            He did not want war–he wanted the slavers to control the US without war. By that standard (Yes, I’ll go there) Hitler did not want war, either.

          • Bruce Vail

            I’m not sure what we are arguing about. Erik and you (and me) agree that he was a bad pro-slavery Democrat in his pre-presidential days.

            As president, he failed to move aggressively against the secessionists, and allowed the country to slide into civil. Not good, of course, but his options were not all that good either.

            He might have pushed the country into civil war a little earlier, but would that have made him a better president? I don’t think so.

            He wanted to avoid war and failed. So, yes, he is a failed president. But the competition for being the worst president is pretty tough and I’m not at all sure that Buchanan wins it.

            • Hogan

              he failed to move aggressively against the secessionists

              As one would say that Reagan failed to move aggressively against the contras in 1986.

    • Scott Lemieux

      Buchanan was the worst president because he didn’t want civil war?

      ?

      Now, I agree that nothing Buchanan could have done would have prevented the Democratic Party from splitting up in 1860, and this made secession inevitable. This is why I would rank Andrew Johnson as even worse. But 1)that doesn’t excuse him going to Douglas’s right on slavery, and 2)the fact that he did nothing after secession happened counts against him pretty massively.

  • Emily68

    Right now I’m reading Our Man in Charleston, Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South by Christopher Dickey. I’m almost half way through, Lincoln’s been elected but hasn’t taken office yet and fire-eaters in South Carolina have worked the stte up to a secessionist frenzy. Buchanan hasn’t exactly distinguished himself so far, so I’ll put him up at the top of the worst.

    • skate

      I’ll give that book some points for demonstrating the mindset of the southern fire eaters in a way that I had never encountered before. IANAH and so had never read about efforts to continue importing slaves despite the constitutional bar against it.

      The title, though, seems typical of so much non-fiction these days. Promises so much, delivers something less.

  • revenant

    waitwaitwait- how can The Disaster Monkey (Bush II) be entered in consideration without mentioning the introduction of torture as policy (what a temptation to go CAPSLOCK on those last three words). Even in the parade of godawful, the animatronic shitshow, that has to guarantee the Deciderer a confirmed place at or near the bottom.
    …and while no fan of “Birth of a Nation” Woodrow, in his defense he did veto the Volstead Act, though he was overridden by Congress.

  • Gary K

    If you return to Lancaster, look for the grave of Thaddeus Stevens in the Shreiner-Concord Cemetery.

  • AMK

    You have to consider what came before, not just what came after. Buchanan was a bad guy and a poor leader, and his actions before and during his term bolstered pro-slavery forces….but given the structural forces at work, it’s hard to say that there wouldn’t have been a Civil War without him. Andrew Johnson did everything he could to undermine reconstruction, but the resistance of southern whites to any real change meant that even somebody like Grant (who used the army against the klan) was doomed to fail. Nixon inherited the Vietnam war and had some positive impact (the EPA, the ABM treaty) even while being a huge crook. Hoover was in over his head with the stock market crash and arguably made things worse….but it’s not like the bubble wouldn’t have popped with sonebody else.

    By contrast, does anybody think Al Gore would have invaded Iraq, initiated torture as policy, and turned a historic surplus into a historic deficit with voodoo economics tax breaks? Dubya’s the worst by far.

  • Julian

    As one quibble, Polk was motivated by general expansionism, not an explicit desire to expand slavery. After all, the US also acquired Oregon during his term in office.

    To learn more about that subject, there’s an excellent book about the Polk presidency — Robert Merry’s A Country Of Vast Designs.

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