Abraham Lincoln is usually considered the greatest ever American president. By contrast, James Buchanan – parents from Ramelton – is widely regarded as the worst ever American president.
Historian Gordon Lucy believes Buchanan was more a victim of the circumstances of the times he lived in.
He was born on April 23, 1791, in Mercersburg in south-central Pennsylvania.
James Buchanan and Elizabeth Speer, his parents, had left Donegal in 1783 to settle in Pennsylvania.
Politically, Buchanan started life as a Federalist.
Said Lucy: “He strongly opposed the War of 1812 on the grounds that it was an unnecessary conflict. Nevertheless, when the British invaded the neighbouring state of Maryland he joined a volunteer unit and participated in the successful defence of Baltimore.
“Buchanan’s legal training enabled him to enjoy a long and successful career in politics, especially with respect to foreign affairs, as a member of Pennsylvania House of Representatives (1815-16), a member of US House of Representatives (1821-31), Minister (Ambassador) to Russia (1832-34), United States Senator (1834-45), Secretary of State (1845-49) and Minister to the United Kingdom (1853-56).
“With the demise of the Federalist Party, Buchanan became a Democrat, the party founded by Andrew Jackson. It was Jackson, a fellow Ulster-Scot who appointed Buchanan as Minister to Russia and James K. Polk, another Ulster-Scots president, who appointed Buchanan as his Secretary of State. In the former role, Buchanan developed an excellent working relationship with the Russian Foreign Minister and negotiated a favourable commercial treaty with Russia.
“In the latter role he dealt with ‘the annexation of Texas’ and the Mexican War. He was also involved in the Oregon boundary dispute and negotiations with the United Kingdom.
“On his return from his three year stint in London as ambassador to the Court of St James, Buchanan secured the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, and at the age of 65 became the oldest man to be elected to the presidency up until that point.
“Buchanan’s tragedy was that his experience and expertise were in foreign policy but he became president at a period when the most pressing and urgent issues in American politics were domestic and probably intractable.
“Buchanan’s administration was bedeviled with rising tensions between North and South and the advocates of ‘the South’s peculiar institution’ (slavery) and an increasingly vocal Abolitionist lobby. He inherited this situation and his stance on slavery did nothing to resolve the developing crisis. On the contrary, Buchanan’s belief that slavery was wrong in principle but legal under the Constitution left him hamstrung and politically paralysed .
“The American Civil War produced about 1,030,000 casualties (three per cent of the population). About 620,000 soldiers died in the conflict. Based on 1860 census figures, eight per cent of all white males aged between 13 and 43 died in the war, including six per cent in the north and a staggering 18 per cent in the south. The conflict was responsible for more deaths than all other US wars combined. These grim facts prompt a series of speculations.
“Could Buchanan have averted the Civil War? If so, how? Or, was the Civil War inevitable? Most historians are emphatic that very few things in history are inevitable. However, to avoid civil war in the early 1860s would have required compromise. There was very little appetite for compromise, north or south, and indeed it remains difficult to envisage what scope existed for compromise.
“Buchanan attempted to conciliate the Southern states and keep them from seceding from the Union over the issue of slavery. There is no evidence that a harder line against slavery would have done anything but provoke the Southern states to secede a few years earlier than they eventually did.
“In his Message to Congress on December 3, 1860 Buchanan denied the legal right of states to secede but held that the Federal Government legally could not prevent them. Thus, he is frequently criticized for not adopting a more pro-active stance against secession.
“Buchanan’s policy of compromise was not unreasonable. Most presidents before him had adopted exactly the same approach, and even his more decisive and almost universally admired successor, Lincoln, persevered with conciliation as long as he could. Buchanan hoped that his policy would at least prevent the border states, the slave states of the upper South, from seceding. Therefore, arguably Buchanan deserves serious credit for the fact that Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri and the western part of Virginia (which split off as the state of West Virginia) did not succumb to the embrace of the Confederacy.
“It remains debatable whether Buchanan could have done anything to prevent the slide towards secession and civil war. However, it is not difficult to have sympathy for the view that it was not Buchanan’s fault. The Civil War stemmed directly from the failure of ‘the Founding Fathers’ to confront the issue of slavery. In the words of David Reynolds in America, Empire of Liberty: ‘The South wanted to establish its own house, founded on slavery – citing the precedent of the American colonies breaking away from Britain in 1776 – but the North would not let it go – determined that the Union, the empire of liberty should remain whole and united’. Buchanan was an honest and intelligent man (probably far more intelligent than many men who have occupied the office) who by sheer hard work achieved two of the highest offices the United States has to offer.
“It was simply Buchanan’s misfortune that his term as President coincided with the most horrendously difficult period in American history which would have beyond the capacity of any man to manage satisfactorily.”