James Buchanan has been labeled the wrong person in the wrong job at precisely the wrong time. His inability to deal with the United States’ secession crisis was, in large part, the product of an overly conciliatory attempt to make both sides happy. His failure in so important a role at so critical a time is, in many ways, puzzling in that Buchanan had been a career politician, well-accustomed to the maneuverings and give-and-take of politics at the federal level.
He came to Washington as a Congressional representative from his native Pennsylvania and rose through the political ranks, making key alliances that led to a series of high-profile posts. These included Ambassador to the Court of St. James and Secretary of State (Curtis, 549). Elected president in 1857, Buchanan sought to adhere strictly to the letter of the law, meaning that he dealt with both secession and attempts to stop it as equally illegal. This shortsighted view and his surprising political ineptitude at a crucial point in the nation’s history led to secession, the formation of the Confederacy and four cataclysmic years of civil war.
Ultimately, it was Buchanan’s inability, or unwillingness, to take decisive action and assert the power of his office when it was most needed that has painted him as a failure. He held curious opinions on the Constitution, which he believed prohibited unilateral action more than enabled it, and on issues such as religion and education. His divisive behavior within the Democratic Party, most notably in his relationship with Stephen Douglas, helped weaken the Democrats and laid the groundwork for the Republicans, whose triumph in 1861 was assured by the secession of the Southern states.
- Curtis, George T. Life of James Buchanan: Fifteenth President of the United States, Vol. 1. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1883.
- Klein, Philip S. President James Buchanan: A Biography. Newton, CT: American Political Biography Press, 1962.