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“Poor James Buchanan”

May 10, 2017

In his memoirs former President Grant wrote: “In 1856… I preferred the success of a candidate whose election would prevent or postpone secession, to seeing the country plunge into a war the end of which no man could foretell.  With a Democrat elected by the unanimous vote of the Slave States, there could be no pretext for secession for four years.  …I therefore voted for James Buchanan for President.”  Unfortunately, by the time Buchanan left office, seven of the Slave States had already seceded.  Of course, they blamed their actions on the election of Buchanan’s successor. Although in Buchanan the country got someone who may have postponed secession, he could not prevent it indefinitely.  He believed the Constitution gave the South no right to secede, but he also believed it gave him no means to stop them.

According to President Truman, Buchanan was “a compromise candidate in a time of compromises.”  In fact, Buchanan’s entire political career spanned from before the Missouri Compromise of 1820 through the Compromise of 1850.  Compromise was the language Buchanan understood, but within days of taking the Presidential oath, the Supreme Court handed down a decision which made any further compromise impossible.  The Union was now headed for dissolution.

Buchanan was not a great President.  Many have called him one of the worst, but not every man of letters has treated him so harshly.  After holding the office about one year, President Kennedy told a noted historian: “No one has a right to grade a President – not even poor James Buchanan – who has not sat in his chair, examined the mail and information that came across his desk, and learned why he made his decisions.”









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