Who Was The Worst U.S. President Ever? – James Buchanan ?
Author Robert Strauss explains his choice of the worst U.S. president.
The short list of America’s greatest presidents is one that most historians agree on. Many books have been written about George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, the three men who top most any list on the topic. But what about America’s worst presidents? In his new book, journalist Robert Strauss examines history to come up with quite a few candidates. But one man takes top billing when it comes to the bottom: James Buchanan, a Democrat who served as the 15th president from 1857 to 1861. Strauss explains why Buchanan left a lousy legacy in the Oval Office in his book, Worst. President. Ever.: James Buchanan, the POTUS Rating Game, and the Legacy of the Least of the Lesser Presidents. He spoke on the [email protected] show, which airs on Wharton Business Radio, SiriusXM Channel 111.
[email protected]: Some people would say that in the category of final four for worst president ever, you could pick one or two from the people who are running for president right now.
Robert Strauss: Well, here’s the scoop. Of course I didn’t write the book last week, so I didn’t have Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton to think about. But when I proposed the book to my agent, I said that half of America thought that Barack Obama was the worst president ever, and half thought George W. Bush was the worst president ever. But neither of them started the Civil War. And that’s where I get to James Buchanan.
[email protected]: James Buchanan is your pick for the worst president ever. But you do throw in other candidates in there as well.
Strauss: Yes, Franklin Pierce. He wins over James Buchanan because even though he was his predecessor, the war didn’t start on his watch. You could certainly surmise people who ran into great difficulties, like Herbert Hoover. The Depression happened on his watch. You could say Warren Harding because he had scandals in his administration, and Richard Nixon had to resign. But each one of them had more positive attributes.
[email protected]: But for Buchanan it was pretty much bad thing after bad thing?
Strauss: From day one. I don’t try to bring too many parallels to this election, but he was sort of the leftover Democrat. He was the most experienced man ever to run for president. He had been a state legislator in Pennsylvania, congressman, senator, secretary of state, ambassador to Russia, ambassador to Great Britain. A lot of experience. But still when he ran, he was sort of just the next guy in line.
He started out bad, and I’ll tell you why he becomes the worst. There is this law case that was going around, the Dred Scott case. He was a slave. His master was in the Army. When his master died, Scott sued because he said he had been a free man, so he was a free man. The case was going to get maybe to the Supreme Court, but it was going to be a narrow decision. Just like today, after Justice Antonin Scalia died it was five to four conservatives and liberals, back then it was five to four Southerners and Northerners. Buchanan says, “I won the election. I’m going to solve the slavery problem.” And by solve it, what he was going to do was influence this court case.
He got a northern judge from Pennsylvania to go along with the majority, then a New York judge wrote a concurring opinion. It was 7-2, so they were able to have a broad decision. And the broad decision was basically interpreting the Constitution that slavery existed everywhere, that neither Congress nor state legislatures could outlaw slavery.
“I always say that James Buchanan is the second most consequential man in American history. … Essentially, it all tore apart on his reign.”
So what are you going to do? We had a 20-year expansion. Things were going great. Railroads led the expansion. Railroads grew up and all the businesses [grew] around railroads. Say you’ve got this business in Chicago making tin cups and you want to move out to Cicero [in Illinois] and have a second plant. Well, you’re not going to do it because somebody from Tennessee might come up with slaves and be your competition. You don’t know what your competition is. Precipitously, businesses failed. All the banks in New York close for a day. They don’t accept script anymore. It’s only gold and silver. Well, you have your tin cup factory, but you don’t have a bar of gold sitting around to pay for things.
That started the panic of 1857, which was the most precipitous drop of all our panics and depressions. Buchanan’s answer to that was, “Sorry. You guys speculated. Government can’t do anything to help you.”
[email protected]: Right after James Buchanan came Abraham Lincoln, who is considered to be one of the best presidents. You almost get the sense that Buchanan certainly earned some of the designation of being a very poor president right off the bat, and that Lincoln changed so many things for the positive is part of the reason why Buchanan was so bad.
Strauss: But maybe the bar wasn’t so high for Lincoln, you know? I always say that Buchanan is the second most consequential man in American history. George Washington is the first because he started everything. Essentially, it all tore apart on Buchanan’s reign.
… The attribute you want most in a president is decisiveness. No matter what you think, even liberals have to acknowledge that Ronald Reagan was decisive. You might not have liked what he did, but he said he was going to do it and he did it. Lincoln was certainly the same way.
[email protected]: In the book, you refer to President Andrew Jackson as kind of a Don Corleone [fictional mafia boss] figure. Why?
Strauss: People say, “Well, Buchanan couldn’t have stopped the Civil War?” If you go to the very end of his reign … [there was conflict with the Democrat nominee for president,] Stephen Douglas, so it sort of makes sure that Lincoln is going to be president.
[After the election but with Buchanan still in office,] the southern states start to secede. He interprets it as the Constitution doesn’t let them secede, but there’s nothing he can do about it. So, seven states secede. You could say, “Well, who could do anything about it?” Andrew Jackson did something about it. South Carolina wanted to nullify a law. They said, “If we have to keep this law we’re going to secede.” And Jackson says, “Sorry, you’re not.”
[email protected]: What about the financial issues of the country at the time?
Strauss: What I like to do in the book is tell stories. One thing we forget about history is that — we forget history. Fifty years from now somebody is going to start writing a book about our era and say, “You mean they actually doubted the president was born in the United States?” Even though this is imbued in this time, that’s going to be way in the background until somebody brings it