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Worst U.S. president? Consider James Buchanan

Buchanan, a Pennsylvania Democrat, was president in the four years leading up to the Civil War, including the final months of his term when southern states started seceding.

For reasons that may be obvious, the question arises: Who was the worst president ever?

James Buchanan
Daguerreotype by Mathew Brady
James Buchanan
The Trump presidency will have to settle into history a bit before his claim to that title can be calmly considered. But whom does he have to beat for that (dis)honor?

A lot of rankings put President James Buchanan as the current holder of the “worst president” title. I don’t have a firm view, but I’ve always leaned toward Buchanan for worst based on a single simple fact. Buchanan, a Pennsylvania Democrat, was president in the four years leading up to the Civil War, including the final months of his term when southern states started seceding.

I believe his historical reputation has to take a fair bit of the blame for allowing the crisis to get to this stage, which his successor, Abe Lincoln, inherited in full swing.  (Yes, the election of Lincoln certainly contributed to the rush of southern states to secede. As you probably know, Lincoln did not run on an abolitionist platform. His sin, in the eyes of the slaveocracy, was that he was opposed to allowing the spread of slavery into the new western states that were being admitted into the Union. Although he made clear that this plan, by changing the balance between slave and free states, would set slavery on what he called a path to “ultimate extinction.”)

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But the secession crisis was building all through Buchanan’s term. And he obviously failed to get ahead of it. One could go deeper into the question of what Buchanan might have done to resolve or postpone or reduce the crisis before it had to be resolved by secession and Civil War.

But (and this is for history nerds only) it should be acknowledged that, in contrast with the current incumbent, Buchanan was, perhaps, the most “qualified” person ever to serve as president, having served, before his presidency, in the Pennsylvania Legislature, the U.S. House, the U.S. Senate, as a U.S. diplomat including a stint as ambassador to Russia and to Britain, and as U.S. secretary of state.

I wouldn’t want to rely over-much on pre-presidential résumé in deciding who might be good at president-ing. Lincoln, widely viewed as the greatest president, had perhaps the thinnest pre-presidential résumé of any president other than Trump, consisting of service in the Illinois Legislature and one not-so-distinguished term in the U.S. House, before stepping into the White House and facing immediately the greatest crisis in U.S. history. Most people think he did pretty well.

Trump, despite his lack of relevant prior experience in government, might have been fine if it were just about experience. Hasn’t turned out that way, which might set us off (but not here today) on a consideration not of importance of pre-presidential experience but on such imponderables as character and morals. I predict, with a high degree of confidence, that Trump will not come down to future generations under the nickname “Honest Don.”