We’ve Forgotten the Worst President in American HistoryRoundup
tags: slavery, presidential history, James Buchanan
Ted Widmer is distinguished lecturer at the Macaulay Honors College of the City University of New York. He edited the two-volume set American Speeches for the Library of America. His next book, Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington, comes out in the spring.
Will President Trump go down as the worst president in history?
That question is being asked a lot, by scholars and columnists, and the result is a new spotlight on our 15th president, James Buchanan, who has locked down that spot for most of the past 159 years, since he slinked out of town on the eve of the Civil War.
Why is Buchanan always so near the bottom? How, exactly, did he screw up? The lists don’t usually go into much detail, except for a few vague sentences about how he failed to avert the war. But that passive formulation doesn’t really get at his spectacular awfulness. Repeatedly, he made terrible decisions, and when presented with various options, pursued the most extreme pro-slavery position (despite the fact that he came from Pennsylvania). He chose a Cabinet dominated by corrupt slave owners who lined their own pockets and stole government assets. When crises came, he had no answers, because he didn’t think the federal government should intervene. As more people questioned his choices, he angrily dismissed their criticism. All of these deficits have kept him permanently at or near the bottom of presidential rankings.
During his inauguration, he was seen whispering to the chief justice of the United States, Roger Taney, who issued the infamous Dred Scott verdict two days later. That notorious decision concluded that African Americans held no rights of any kind, and could never be citizens of the United States. Buchanan hoped the decision would put the slavery debate to rest. Instead, it did the opposite, enraging Northerners who saw it as proof that the Slave Power would stop at nothing to enshrine slavery as a national institution. While it is routinely considered the worst Supreme Court decision in American history, by conservatives and liberals alike, Buchanan had lobbied hard for the verdict, inappropriately writing to justices before his inauguration while promising the public that he would “cheerfully” accept their verdict.
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