Column: Who was the worst president?

Commentary by Jonathan Matthes

If I asked you who you thought the best president was, most of you would likely say  Abraham Lincoln or George Washington. I’m not going to argue with you. Lincoln and Washington did amazing things, uttered profound sayings, have prominent monuments in Washington and have their birthdays celebrated every year.

If they are the gold standard, then the standard is well-represented.



If I asked you who you thought the best president was, practically none of you would say James Buchanan. He was both the immediate predecessor to Lincoln and almost routinely rated as the worst president in history. And for good reason.

Why was he so bad?

To help with this I called up Robert Strauss, who wrote a book about the worst presidents ever, called “Worst. President. Ever.” And we pow wowed.

“Most people can say they want to be the next Washington, Lincoln or Roosevelt, but those situations are unlikely. For instance, the next president isn’t likely founding a new nation or facing civil war or a world war,” Strauss mused. “But everyone can aspire to be better than Buchanan.”

So what happened under Buchanan that went so poorly?

In short, everything.

He convinced a few of the northern Supreme Court justices to vote along with the five Southerners to rule against Dred Scott in the landmark Dred Scott case, which declared the children of former slaves non-citizens and made it harder for the nation to regulate slavery.

The Court was made up of five southerners, who were going to vote against Scott, and four northerners, who were most likely going to vote in his favor, which Buchanan thought would increase the divide between the north and south. So he convinced some northern justices to go along with the southerners to show  bipartisan support.

Buchanan had good intentions, I guess, but they egregiously backfired, further dividing the nation. Dred Scott vs. Sandford would go down as one of the Supreme Court’s most regrettable decisions.

Speaking of slavery, Buchanan believed its legality should be left up to individual states, as happened in Kansas.

Buchanan backed Kansas determining its slave status by referendum. That might make sense in a Utopian dream, but it sparked “Bleeding Kansas,” But it sparked “Bleeding Kansas,” violent statewide confrontations between pro- and anti-slavery factions.

One of the anti-slavery heroes, John Brown — who murdered a lot of people — then went to Harper’s Fairy, Va., to start a slave revolt by commandeering an armory. Buchanan wasn’t going to do anything about it until Robert E. Lee, then a captain in the U.S. Army, reminded him that Harper’s Ferry was just up the Potomac from Washington, D.C.,  and that a violent revolt could easily drift down the river to the nation’s capital.

This is the theme for Buchanan, division. As Strauss put it, “As president, Buchanan chose the wrong path at every fork in the road.” He had Congress pass a tariff that tamped down manufacturing at a time when the north’s economy was becoming more manufacturing-dependent, which helped create a crippling recession.

His entire presidency was marred with division. At almost every turn, he’d inadvertently sow more of it.

In fairness, the table wasn’t set up well for Buchanan. Franklin Pierce’s presidency was a disaster, so Buchanan didn’t inherit an ideal situation.

His presidency began with the nation on the brink of civil war. When he left office,  six states had seceded from the Union. And he believed that, he, as sresident, was powerless to stop them.

So, this makes me wonder: What are the traits that made Buchanan such a forgettable president? I think it’s a fair question.

Maybe Buchanan just lacked experience?

Nope. Buchanan might have had the most impressive resume of any president ever. He served five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and nearly a decade in the Senate. He was a secretary of state and an ambassador to Russia and Great Britain. He also had experience running for president. He was elected on his fourth try. The man did it all. Few have ever been so qualified.

Well, that rules out inexperience. So maybe he was too introverted and didn’t connect well with others?

Nope. Buchanan was the only bachelor president and lived like it. He was the life of every party and loved throwing them. He was a good dancer, could carry conversation with ease, and was well-liked by almost everyone.

OK, well, how decisive was he?

Now we are on to something. Buchanan wasn’t a decisive person.

That’s not always a bad thing. Being the good guy who doesn’t have to make firm decisions helps when you’re trying to build relationships in foreign courts or in the halls of Congress — a skill Buchanan mastered.

But as president firm decision-making is essential when you have to lead in the face of crisis.

Look at those pinnacle presidents. George Washington had to hold the nation together through its volatile infancy. Andrew Jackson held the nation together by the force of shear will on two occasions — first as a general at the end of the War of 1812,  the second president when South Carolina tried to secede. Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt guided the nation through climatic wars. Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan put a bold face on America, believing that the U.S. should be a global leader that doesn’t back down from foreign powers.

All six of those presidents shared a similar trait: they were decisive.

When challenges presented themselves, those six held their ground.

Buchanan did not.

Memory can be an interesting judge. Buchanan and Lincoln faced a similar problem. The nation was dissolving before them. They faced the same crisis. But Lincoln succeeded where Buchanan failed.

What was the difference?

The difference was that the nation came together under Lincoln and fell apart under Buchanan.

We rate our best presidents as best presidents because they have success. They have tangible accomplishments. But how would we remember our favorite presidents if those accomplishments never happened?

Take Lincoln, for example. Most say he’s the greatest president of them all. I don’t disagree.

We forget, though, that he was massively unpopular during his first term as president. His reelection was in serious doubt, especially with his opponent promising peace with the South. The Confederacy would have been its own nation. The Civil War would have ended with a defeated Union.

What saved Lincoln was the Battle of Gettysburg in July of 1863. After the federals’ victory, momentum shifted the Union’s way and people began to believe that there might be an end to the war on the horizon. In November of 1864, Lincoln would win reelection in a landslide.

But what if Gettysburg didn’t happen?

What if Lincoln didn’t win reelection and the South became its own country?

How would you remember him today?

Special thanks to:

Robert Strauss. Author of Worst. President. Ever.

Howard Witt and the Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia

Pari Arnold, Professor the University of Notre Dame

Lillian Cunningham, the Washington Post and the “Presidential” Podcast

  • Kenneth_Almquist

    I don’t think that lack of decisiveness was Buchanan’s only problem, or even his primary problem. Good politicians understand human behavior, and use that understanding to achieve their objectives. Buchanan failed rather badly in this regard.

    I recall Buchanan ever being indecisive when dealing with “bleeding Kansas.” When there was a disputed election, he sent in federal troops to support the side that he concluded was the legitimate government. The underlying problem in Kansas was that letting the people Kansas decide the status of slavery there was, in your words, something that “might make sense in a Utopian dream,” but wasn’t likely to work out well with real human beings. I’m not sure whether Buchanan simply didn’t see this, or whether he did see it but wasn’t willing to alter his policy simply because human beingings didn’t behave the way he thought they ought to behave. As far as I can see, Buchanan’s only response to the situation in Kansas was to stick to his policy no matter how it was working out in practice. And you can argue that this worked, in the sense that Kansas did adopt a constitution and become a state under Buchanan’s watch. But someone with more political skill might have been able to achieve the same result with less bloodshed.

    In his December 3, 1860 message to Congress, Buchanan laid out his views on secession. In brief, (1) secession was unconstitutional, (2) the Federal government had no authority to force a state to comply with its Constitutional obligations, and (3) Congress ought to pass a Constitutional amendment to address the concerns of the southern states and convince them not to secede.

    The last of these is, I think, an indication that he was misreading the political situation. Four days later, Governor Joseph Brown of Georgia wrote an open letter arguing in favor of secession. In it he opined that if the South aquiesed to Lincoln becoming President, the result would be, “the total abolition of slavery, and the utter ruin of the South, in less than twenty-five years.” Nothing Congress could do, short of refusing to certify the election results, would satisfy Brown.

    It’s the second point, though, that is a pure political blunder, because it allowed Brown to address fears that secession would lead to war by writing: “The President in his late message, while he denies our Constitutional right to secede, admits that the General Government has no Constitutional right to coerce us back into the Union, if we do secede. Secession is not likely, therefore, to involve us in war.”

    Of course secession did lead to war. After the attack on Fort Sumter, Lincoln called for troops to suppress, “combinations too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings, or by the powers vested in the Marshals by law.” Buchanan writes in 1866 that Lincoln never claimed the power to coerce a state. “Happily our civil war was undertaken and prosecuted in self-defence, not to coerce a State, but to enforce the execution of the laws within the States against individuals, and to suppress an unjust rebellion raised by a conspiracy among them against the Government of the United States.” Even in retrospect, his only concern seems to be whether his Constitutional analysis was correct, not whether it was politically wise to express his opinion at that particular juncture.