To be honest, I was looking forward to reading about James Buchanan. He’s often listed as one of the worst presidents that America has ever had. A lot of times, nearly total blame for the Civil War lands on his shoulders and he is just this semi-creepy, possibly homosexual, odd ball of a president. I was looking forward to a good villain story. I was really surprised with what I found. I think that Jean H. Baker did a great job of offering up a great, balanced look at a man who is generally pretty misunderstood.
The thing that I’m learning through reading these biographies is that in general, most of the men who have become president have done the best they could with the knowledge and resources that they had. We can look back and say, “man, that was an awful decision” but I think that generally in the midst of it that the men making the decisions though that they were doing the best for their country. I think that that is where Buchanan failed and probably one of the big things that led to the Civil War…. he simply didn’t have the guts to stand by what was right. He decided instead to stand by and do nothing. When he saw that slavery was an issue that could no longer be overlooked, he focused instead on menial foreign policy. When shots were fired at Fort Sumpter and it was obvious that something was going to go down, he just counted the days until Lincoln took office so he could escape responsibility.
For whatever reason (the author thinks that it was just a pro southern slant based on a love for the southern way of life, although Buchanan was from Pennsylvania), Buchanan sided with the south every.single.time. Every time. It’s almost impossible to believe that he really felt like that was the best decision for the country and it was sad, reading his biography, to watch this SUPER seasoned politician (he had been in politics for over 30 years!) just take this huge nosedive because he refused to look into the future. His shortsightedness cost him in the end and it was just sad to watch.
Because the thing is, I think that Buchanan was probably a pretty cool guy. He never married- the author makes a strong argument for him being gay, but one way or the other, who cares?- but bought this huge house so that his nieces and nephews and their sons and daughters could have a place to go to visit and often to live for big chunks of time. He loved his friends and spent more time socially with his cabinet members than any president before or after. He was kind of strange looking (he had weak eyes and often had to squeeze one shut to see where he was going), but always dressed nice and tried to make a good impression. He was a northerner but was in love with the idea of “The Southern Gentleman” and that idea of this gentle, laid back lifestyle. I WANTED to like him, and I think that that was a real strong suit in this biography. Even though it was just this history book, I was really torn- I like this dude, do I really want to blame this war on him?
The fact is, he does shoulder a lot of the blame. Again, history is a funny thing. If the result of the Civil War had been different, had Lincoln been just as wishy washy as Buchanan, or 1,000 other “what if”s… then I think that we would see Buchanan very differently. I think that Jean Baker did a great job of presenting to us a good man who made a series of bad decisions. This was not at all the villain story that I was expecting, and somehow I’m happy for that.