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Why is James Buchanan considered one of America’s worst presidents?

Many historians rate America’s 15th chief executive, James Buchanan, as the most inept occupant of the White House due mainly to the fact that he took no action to unite a country sharply divided over the issue of slavery and did nothing to stop Southern states from seceding in the lead-up to the Civil War. Born in Pennsylvania in 1791, Buchanan’s pre-presidency resume was impressive: He was a successful lawyer, served in the Pennsylvania state legislature and both houses of the U.S. Congress, and did stints as secretary of state and ambassador to Russia and Great Britain. During his winning campaign for the nation’s highest office in 1856, he endorsed the view that residents of each territory, rather than the U.S. government, should decide whether or not to allow slavery. His challenger, Sen. John Fremont of California, the first-ever Republican presidential candidate, opposed the expansion of slavery.

Shortly after Buchanan’s inauguration, the Supreme Court infamously ruled in the Dred Scott case that African Americans were not and never could become U.S. citizens, and the federal government couldn’t outlaw slavery in its territories. Buchanan allegedly influenced the case’s outcome and thought it would permanently put the slavery issue to rest. Instead, the country grew more divided. Referred to as a “doughface” (a Northerner with Southern sympathies), Buchanan went on to further alienate antislavery forces and divide his own party, the Democrats, with his support for the controversial, pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution in territorial Kansas. However, voters there ultimately rejected the document and Kansas entered the Union as a free state.

James Buchanan. (Credit: Public Domain)

James Buchanan. (Credit: Public Domain)

In response to Abraham Lincoln’s presidential victory in November 1860, seven Southern states seceded and formed the Confederacy. Buchanan contended the states had no constitutional right to exit the Union but felt he had no authority to block them. On his way out of office in March 1861, he dumped the bitterly divisive slavery problem into the lap of the new administration; the next month, the Civil War erupted. Buchanan, the only lifelong bachelor to be president, died at his Pennsylvania estate, Wheatland, in 1868.

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Other commanders in chief who get lousy performance reviews from historians include Buchanan’s predecessor, Franklin Pierce, who enabled the expansion of slavery; Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, who was impeached; and the 29th chief executive, Warren Harding, whose Cabinet was riddled with corruption.

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